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Strategies for an Urban Cultural Life

The effects of human activity on the environment over the past few centuries have given rise to some of today's most pressing challenges. This article is the fifth in a five-part series outlining economic, ecological, political, and cultural stratgies for creating a more sustainable and equitable world.

Read parts one, two, three, and four.

By Glenn Robert Erikson

An individual’s quality of life has much more to do with personal freedom, quality of health and relationships, and job satisfaction than it does with income, attainment of wealth, or the acquisition of an abundance of consumer goods. A city must support these former facets if it is to thrive. In other words, a city that provides a good quality of life can attract and retain the highly educated, skilled workers and innovative entrepreneurs it needs to remain economically viable and to best respond to inevitable challenges.

Community life. People are particularly attuned to living in a community where they feel they are valued members. Historically, our cities have fostered both a collaborative commons and an architectural distinctiveness that have bestowed an emotional ground and psychological identity for their residents. Unfortunately, in contemporary society, urban planning and particularly international and post-modern architecture have often collapsed the rootedness and distinctiveness of many of our communities, lowering local engagement and participation. Critical regionalism promotes the design of regionally sensitive architecture and planning, encouraging a sense of community and place. Adding to the collaborative commons would further increase our connection and bonding to place, which cannot happen in a sea of sameness.

Urban vitality. The physical separation of office from retail or industry from residential deadened our urban areas. This deadening can be reversed by thoughtfully allowing multiple uses in close proximity, enlivening urban streets with a dense mix of pedestrian-oriented retail, office, and residential uses, plus fostering multiple systems of transportation in close proximity. Schools, medical facilities, and provisions for non-profit offices should be part of the mix. Nodes and streets should include a safe environment for car lanes, bicycle lanes, and pedestrian walkways.

History and memory. The philosophies, religions, and institutions of the past continue to influence our understanding of ourselves and add to our potential for progress. By connecting us with our past, we can then look toward our future. Urban renewal and economic opportunities offered by newer, larger buildings and complexes often threaten that historic memory, and thus significant portions of that fabric need to be saved even as we renew, revitalize, and grow our cites.

Education. In our technological world, a college education is often the determining factor in high- vs. low-wage jobs. A low-cost, high-quality education should therefore be available to all. When colleges cannot be physically located near those wanting to attend, web-based free education should be provided. In addition, while we must educate future generations for the jobs that will be available to them, we must also educate them to be good citizens: literate, compassionate to others, and understanding of their relationship to the world around them.

Artists and live/work housing.  Our urban areas are largely where we create our culture. This creativity—and the vitality, innovation, transformation, and growth associated with it—can only occur where the advances that come from this creativity are incentivized and embraced. Yet, the rapidly increasing housing values in our urban cores are pricing out artists and other creative types; if dispersed into far-flung areas, their loss negatively impacts the vitality of our urban cultural cores. To counteract this loss, we need to develop low-income housing specifically for artists and other creative types. Alternatively, we can provide tax incentives for artists, such as in Dublin, where artists aren’t taxed on the first 40,000 euros they earn a year.

Corporate vs. societal interests in culture and education. Global corporate capitalism’s interests in culture and education too often correspond only to their financial interests, i.e., making profits from mass culture such as TV and movies and generating fees for providing educational services such as printing textbooks, creating coursework, offering degrees, and certifying teachers. Public interest in education is larger than the narrow business interest in education, but the long-term health of our corporate culture cannot long exceed the health of our citizenry. The two are inextricably linked.

Mass media. Corporate advertising is pervasive in mass media and public venues. While the media must be a sanctum for free speech, members of the public who do not wish to be part of corporate-sponsored advertising must be free to avoid it. Therefore, public advertising should be strictly limited to entertainment venues such as Times Square in New York City.

Health care. Medical and urban infrastructure improvements have vastly improved the health of citizens in many of our cities. However, large numbers of people still do not have access to these facilities. We must extend health care infrastructure around the globe and eliminate economic and geographic barriers to access, especially when addressing the issue of infant mortality. Basic medicines, procedures, vaccines, and preventative measures should be available to all. New discoveries in medicine, diet, and lifestyle continue to provide improvements to our health care options, and these new technologies can and must be distributed more evenly across the globe.

The Earth has seen numerous geologic ages through its history. Some sustained themselves over millions of years. Others were transient. If we are to make the Anthropocene one that lasts and represents what we aspire to, we will need to fashion an urban theory with sustainable strategies. What is fashioned here is an early draft of the strategies for such a theory, one that I hope will be added to many times over the course of our future.

*****

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Glenn Robert Erikson is a member of the World Policy Institute Advisory Council.

[Photo courtesy of Ed Schipul]

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