The Geography of Misery

Light and shade accompany the urban story, and in some places it is the dark that dominates. Too often, grinding poverty, hopelessness, drug dealing, child prostitution, people-trafficking, petty crime, street children, AIDS and the fear induced by local gangs characterize the urban experience. And let's not forget Grozny or Baghdad. We can take extremes of suffering and well-being as a given. Columbia's murder rate is 100 times that of Copenhagen. Gloom is fairly unavoidable when you dwell on these thoughts, and trying to empathize with the city's most afflicted hurts in the gut.

But misery is exactly where the greater focus of creativity should be. Forget for the moment the more attractive glamour of new media industries or the latest icon building in a city centre. Finding imaginative solutions to day-to-day needs, human distress, thwarted ambition, and crime and violence is a far more creative act. The creativity needed has different qualities. Good ideas are interwoven with courage, the skill of mediation, negotiation, dialogue and even love.

This chapter and the two that follow approach the concept of geography in terms of the way feelings and experiences are distributed over physical space. Further, these chapters explore how misery, desire or mere blandness can pervade the way a city looks and feels. Endemic misery among an urban population, for instance, will impact on the subjective experience of a visitor to their city. But misery may also be reflected in the physical structure of the city: crumbling buildings, filthy streets, public spaces no longer tended by a local authority, no-go areas. And the same applies to desire and blandness, which can manifest themselves in advertising clutter or homogenized shopping malls respectively.

Misery exists everywhere, even in our most affluent cities -mundane, everyday miseries of redundancy, not being able to make ends meet or the alienation that dense but fragmented communities can induce. However, I concentrate here on extremes of misery to illustrate more starkly how creativity can be brought to bear on problems we are all too aware of, if probably not close to.

While sometimes grim, these narratives are intended to emphasize hope rather than despair. Even for a city in acute distress, those that live there can still harbour a love. In each of the cities mentioned in the pages that follow, there are wonderful people battling against the odds. As we survey misery, consider the NGO Viva Rio's campaign 'Choose Gun Free! It's Your Weapon or Me', where women are taking the lead in reducing debilitating levels of gun violence in the favelas. Consider Viktor Melnikov, the surprise new mayor of shockingly polluted Norilsk, who is trying to force the local mining company into safer practices. Consider the project that Cirque du Soleil, in conjunction with Save the Children, and in addition to its shelters, has developed to provide circus training as an alternative to education for the street children who lived in the sewers and heating pipes beneath the streets of Ulan Bator.

Or consider the reaction 'without precedent in Japanese society'61 to the Kobe earthquake of 1995, which killed 6279 people. Although volunteerism is not nearly as widespread in Japan as in Europe or North America, most search and rescue was undertaken by community residents. Spontaneous volunteering and emergent group activity were widespread throughout the emergency period. Residents provided a wide range of goods and services to their fellow earthquake victims, and large numbers of people travelled from other parts of the country to offer aid. Officially designated rescue agencies such as fire departments and civil defence forces were responsible for recovering at most one quarter of those trapped in collapsed structures. There was not a single authenticated case of looting.62

To focus on misery can depress, yet it provides a broad and rich context in which to imagine positive, original alternatives. A reminder of urban difficulties challenges us to imagine deep down what it is really like to live in such places. It reminds us what the challenge is to creativity: to build civility, a civic culture and some sense of fairness, to curtail the corrupt, to generate jobs, and to create cities that can do more than just serve basic needs.

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