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January 8, 2016 / Leo Hollis

Introduction to the Russian edition



The first time I visited Moscow was in September 2013, at the kind invitation of the Strelka Institute. [ the talk can be seen here:] It was my first encounter with a city that had loomed large in my imagination for many years. I was invited in order to talk about Jane Jacobs, a figure that has become central to my thinking about cities and what makes a good place. Therefore as I left my hotel and made my first steps into the urban realm, I was hoping to encounter the city on a number of levels.

The central plaza and streets of Moscow seemed very far from the more intimate neighbourhood spaces of 1960s Greenwich Village, Manhattan. As I explore in this book, Jacobs saw something of the deep flows of the city and explores what we might lose when we concentrate on making the city more efficient, more smooth. The well rehearsed image of the ‘street ballet’ of Jacob’s own home, Hudson Street, is a paradigm that should be nurtured wherever one goes. Yet this was very far from the vision that I encountered in central Moscow.

As I wandered along the streets that run alongside the Moskva, I found that I was weaving my way through cars that had been parked along the pavement area. Further along, as I attempted to cross one of the main roads, I discovered that I had to navigate a complicated sequence of manouvres in order to get back to where I was. I felt, as a pedestrian, the city was not revealing itself to me. The city had been taken over by the cars that now filled the arteries and flows of the city, reducing the pace of the city to a halting, grinding standstill. Many of the qualities of the city that make it so creative, human, surprising were being lost, and even those who wanted to encounter the city in other ways had to negotiate their routes around this dominant form of traffic.

In this, Moscow is no different from many of the major cities of the world. But what is the solution? In its 9,000-year history, the city has been the place where strangers have come together for multifarious reasons; but in that coming together, the city has become greater than the sum of its parts. This is what Jane Jacobs was describing when she talked about the ‘Ballet of Hudson Street.’ In an unforgettable description of what she saw and heard on an ordinary day standing outside 555 Hudson Street, Jacobs followed the traces of the complex city as it interwove in front of her doorway. What she discovered in is the genius of the city: connections and networks.

In the weeks before my arrival in Moscow, I was told, the Danish architect Jan Gehl had visited. Gehl had first explored his ideas of the life between buildings in his home city of Copenhagen. When he pedestrianised the central section of the city, Strogets, as recounted later this in the book, the locals felt that he was mad, and endangering the normal running of the city: how things ran. But it was within months that the success of the project was acknowledged: people came to this neighbourhood and made it the public forum of the city, if not the nation. This was a public space that people wanted to be in.

When Gehl went back and investigated why Strogets ‘worked’ as a public space, he watched as the locals wandered around the place, how they interacted and what they observed. He discovered that despite the general good spirit of the place, people undoubtedly stopped at the cinema to see what was on, sat in cafes and met their friends, window shopped and hung out: but the thing that interested people the most were other other. The key to a good public space is the understanding that we are hard wired to be together, and that something special happens when we gather: we become more than the sum of our parts. There are plenty of examples of this.

Charm Offensive, a 2011 study by the Young Foundation, recorded levels of civility in three different parts of the UK: a market place in one of the poorest boroughs of London, a new town in Cambridgeshire, and a selection of villages in rural Wiltshire. The study found that politeness is not a question of wealth or homogeneity, but of proximity and interaction. The marketplace in the East End of London, despite being a place of huge diversity, was also the place where everyone was willing to muddle along. There was equality amongst stallholders and shoppers to make this a good public space.

This seems to align with Richard Sennett’s mantra that we need good public spaces in order to learn the rules of coming together. For despite our deep desire to be together, we are not equipped at birth with the necessary tools for being the true social animals that our instincts tell us we are.

As an architect, Gehl sees that this is a design solution: if we design good public spaces, then people will come together. In Gehl’s study on Moscow ‘Towards a Great City for People’ that was published the same month as my trip [] placed the dominance of the car as the main problem of the city, estimating that the automobile took over 91% of Tverskaya space, and elsewhere in the city this proportion rarely rose above 20% of space given over to the human and social life of the metropolis. The report then goes on to develop ways in which to enhance the existing qualities of the city: historical heritage, quality of green spaces, while also developing strategies of how to deliver parts of the city back to the ordinary citizen, not stuck behind the wheel, cut off from the joys of street life. Gehl proposes a ways of ‘unlocking’ the treasure of Moscow, as if they are there already and need to be released.

But design is not the answer alone. The architect can not cure the ills of the city just by manipulating the structures and objects of the urban fabric. Everything about the city is political – this is unavoidable. It is often the attempts to de-politicise the city –  to offer solutions without understanding the diversity and uneven landscape that makes up the city  – that cause more problems than they cure. In ‘Cities Are Good For You’ I highlight the importance of the debates on inequality, trust and sustainability as central to the argument of what makes a fair city, a place that I believe that we all deserve.

By politics, I do mean the daily goings-on of City Hall that is essential to the good running of the metropolis and in the following chapters I explore some of the ways these can be improved, but I also mean a more personal, everyday form: the politics of everyday life.

An unfair metropolis is not the price we have to pay for urban living. We must have the confidence to believe that change is possible, and it is in our hands. This is why we must return to the politics of everyday life in order to find a way forward.  It is this that Jacobs identified as the spirit of the city, it is also what the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre sees as the raw material from which transformative change can occur. Here, in our ordinary moments, we live a life in connection with others: neighbours, strangers, co-workers, corporations, government. We must rediscover the truth that these connections are what makes up our lives, and therefore everything that happens in the city is political. As Lefebvre notes:

‘true politics involves a knowledge of everyday life and a critique of its requirements. . . Everyday life is profoundly related to all activities, and encompasses them with all their differences and their conflicts; it is their meeting place, their bond, their common ground. And it is in everyday life that the sum of relations which make the human – and every human being – a whole, takes it shape and its form.’

The only way we can learn to be together and live together is by coming together. Yet this simple truth is increasingly under threat in our modern city.

I was reminded of the importance of social urbanism last summer when I heard the story of Erdem Gunduz, the young protester who, on the evening of Monday, June 17, 2013, walked onto Taksim Square, put down his rucksack, and turned to face the Ataturk Cultural Centre at the end of the square. There he stayed for the next eight hours, saying and doing nothing except occupying the space where he stood. In that moment he reclaimed not just the power of that public place–which was contested at that time–but also his right to be there, to be a citizen.

There is something important that occurs when we occupy public space. Not only does the action itself reclaim the urban place for the benefit of all, but it creates citizens, like Erdem Gunduz. Thus the idea of a truly social urbanism is one that combines place, action, and citizenship. The space can only be public because it has been reclaimed.

This calls for constant vigilance, as well as a new set of values that rewires the way we think about the city. These values might include trust, equality, and the right to the city for all. The relationship between trust and equality is indelibly interlinked. There can be no trust when there is “us and them,” the “haves and the have-nots”; trust is the glue that brings the city together and allows the nurture of civility.

As ‘Cities Are Good For You’ shows, these benefits of urban living are for all, but they are often hard won gains that need to be protected from the constant tides  and demands of those who see the city as a place of exchange alone, and not a place that can make us better people. What breaks this trust is inequality, the loss of empathy, which we can see all around us in the contemporary city—and it is getting worse. Today, cities around the world display unprecedented levels of inequality in parallel to some of most stricken developing nations. By addressing these dangerous divisions, the steps we need to take to revive and rediscover the power of public spaces, and reclaim the city for all will become clear. For if the city is not for everyone, it benefits no one.

The books starts with questions: how do we organise ourselves when the institutions that once held us together no longer connect us? What are the rules that allow us to be together? And most importantly, who is the city for? These questions allow us to think about the city anew. This thirst for a fairer city must influence policy, design, social enterprises, urbanism and business. They inform the debate on the boundaries between private and the public space. They show the interwoven relationship between trust and equality in creating places and neighbourhoods. They are at the heart of the search for spaces that can be places of nurture, learning and creativity. It is only a democratic turn that can propose what makes a robust community, a place where people look out for each other.
It takes a city to prepare for an uncertain future, not only to survive but to flourish.


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