Citymaking and responsibility

Whose responsibility is it to make our cities? While the forms they take are usually unintentional, cities are not mere accidents. They are the product of decisions made for individual, separate, even disparate purposes, whose inter-relationships and side-effects have not been fully considered.

City-making is in fact no one person's job. Politicians say it is theirs, but they can get too concerned with managing a party rather than a city. Elected officials can get addicted to shorter-term thinking. The imperative to get re-elected can stifle leadership, risks are not taken, and easy wins or instantly visible results - the building of a bypass, say, or putting up as many housing units as possible -are thrust to the fore. Perhaps a local partnership or a chief executive officer is responsible? No - probably not.

The urban professions would claim they are in charge, even though they are responsible only for aspects of the physical parts. Yet if there is no conscious overarching sense of city- or place-making, we go by default patterns and the core assumptions of each profession - their technical codes, standards and guidelines, such as those that set patterns for a turning circle or the width of pavements. But such codes, standards and guidelines do not, on their own, provide a cohesive template for city-making. The technical knowledge of highway engineers, surveyors, planners or architects, viewed in isolation, is probably fine, albeit requiring rethinking on occasion, but a technical manual does not create a bigger picture of what a city is, where it could be going and how it fits into a global pattern.

It is no one person's job at present to connect the agendas, ways of thinking, knowledge and skill bases. But if, at present, no one is responsible, then everyone is to blame for our many ugly, soulless, unworkable cities and our occasional places of delight. And there is a pass-the-parcel attitude to responsibility. One moment the highway engineers are the scapegoats, the next it's the planner or the developer. What is needed is more than being a mere networker or broker of professions and requires a deeply etched understanding of what essence each professional grouping brings or could bring to the art of city-making.

The spirit of city-making, with its necessary creativity and imagination, is more like improvised jazz than chamber music. There is experimentation, trial and error, and everyone can be a leader, given a particular area of expertise. As if by some mysterious process, orchestration occurs through seemingly unwritten rules. Good city-making requires myriad acts of persistence and courage that need to be aligned like a good piece of music. There is not just one conductor, which is why leadership in its fullest sense is so important - seemingly disparate parts have to be melded into a whole.

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