Michael Speaks out No.9

City building sounds noble, but just what does it mean? I suspect that there are as many definitions as there are those engaged in city building itself.

I consulted with a wise ‘old’ urban planner (whose identity I promised not to reveal) seeking his insight into the age old practice of city building. This reputable sage suggested that a city is a place where people live and work. He then stated that city building is the exercise of planning, designing and implementing the physical infrastructure where the aforementioned activities take place. I suggested to him that his definition was rather benign, uninspiring and lacking “soul”.

After an uncomfortable silence and a sip of his favorite libation my dear old friend stammered and suggested that what I call “soul” is really beyond what most city planners engage in when they set about the task of city building. At this point I suggested that this is precisely what is wrong with so much of the city building which is taking place today in North America.

The United Nations defines a “City” as a locality with a distinct population cluster (also designated as an inhabited place, populated centre, settlement and so forth) in which the inhabitants live in neighbouring sets of living quarters and that has a name or a locally recognized status. The United Nations definition touches upon the relationship between the people who inhabit cities. More specifically, there is a reference to neighbouring sets of “living” quarters. “Living”… city building should be about creating environments within which individuals and groups of people can experience “living” to its fullest. In my humble opinion city building is not about infrastructure, it’s about “living”.

How many times have we heard our family, friends, neighbours and associates rave about their experiences in what are characterized as world class cities. Not surprisingly, many of these world class cities were built hundreds if not several thousands of years ago (i.e. Rome, Istanbul). These world class cities offer exemplary “living” experiences which stir the “soul”. What they lack in modern infrastructure they compensate for with an abundance of “soul”.

In contrast, many North American cities are rich in infrastructure but sadly lack “soul”. After debating this issue for several hours with my dear old friend, the somewhat famous urban planner realized that his celebrity was attributed to his acumen in delivering infrastructure. Sadly, he confessed that he had failed miserably in creating cities with “soul”. I suspect that this can be attributed to the fact that it is infinitely easier to plan and deliver infrastructure, as opposed to creating the conditions where the “soul” of a city emerges.

The focus of city builders should be on balancing the need to deliver infrastructure with the creation of cities with a “soul”. City builders will succeed in this endeavor if they apply their efforts to creating places which will contribute to the ability of citizens to experience life to the fullest. Facilitating the interaction of family, friends, neighbours and associates in richly designed and executed places which have a “soul” should permeate every element of city building.

That’s it for now. Remember… “The only way you may succeed is if you try” (Yoda).

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Read contributions by Michael Gagnon, Managing Principal Planner of Gagnon Walker Domes Ltd. (GWD) click here

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