NVUF Recommends: Common Ground In A Liquid City

Common Ground in A Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future

Matt Hern.  AK Press, 2010.

The North Van Urban Forum has been preaching the ‘community is the lens through which we need to view our cities’ message for some time now.  Lots of great writers, thinkers, designers (sometimes all three have been located in the same person!) have laid the groundwork for this conversation, from Jane Jacobs to Ken Greenberg.  In exploring this discussion, and in searching for eloquent voices that were able to articulate the issues, we were thrilled recently to discover Matt Hern’s “Common Ground In a Liquid City”, not least because he represents a Vancouver’s eye point of view of a global conversation.  You can check out more of Matt on his website www.mightymatthern.com, including details of his great work helping to found ‘Car Free Vancouver Day’.

In the meantime, I’ll let Matt Hern give you an intro to his own book, as per the opening pages: 

“It’s funny how people tend to describe Canada: fish, timber, prairies, empty beaches, crashing waves, lonely farmers, isolated small towns. That picture is a romantically attractive one but distorting. The reality is that Canada is an urban country. More than 80 percent of Canada’s population lives in urban centers, half the country lives in Vancouver, Montreal, or Southern Ontario, and virtually all the population is crowded tightly along the border.

That’s a good thing. With a world population closing in on seven billion and not expected to stabilize until nine or ten billion, people are increasingly concentrating in cities all over the world. And thank goodness for that.

The only chance the world has for an ecological future is for the vast bulk of us to live in cities. If we want to preserve what’s still left of the natural world, we need to stop using so much of it. We need to start sharing the resources and land bases we do have, to stop spreading out so much, and focus our transportation and energy resources carefully. It may sound counter-intuitive, but there can be no doubt that an ecological future has to be organized around cities—which kind of ironically is also our only route to protecting our non-urban areas. If we love and want to protect our small towns, rural, and farming areas then we had better start living compactly, stop sprawling all over them, and turning all of it into one faceless, concrete mess. That’s the first core contention of this book.

The second is that cities have to be made solid. In a liquid era when people, goods, and capital are sloshing all over the globe we have to turn cities into comprehensible places that everyday people can actively inhabit. Vancouver has a particularly liquid quality and not just because I’m being metaphorically cute, but because so many people and so much capital wants to flow through the city. I’m fully in favor of migration and mobility but I’m searching for the kinds of attachments that turn “urban areas” into cities and “urban space” into common places.

I’m not interested in turning cities into villages or collections of villages—I think that’s exactly the wrong way to imagine a city—but cities need to be full of solid, distinct, and comprehensible places. You can have the magic and possibilities of a city while building it around local vitality, self-governance, and neighborhoods. Those things are not antagonistic.

The third core contention this book is that city-building leadership cannot fall to experts, bureaucrats, or planners. People have to make cities by accretion: bit-by-bit, rejecting master plans, and letting the place unfold. Whether it’s our safety, governance, or urban planning, it’s everyday people who can make the best decisions. But for this to be possible, cities need engaged citizens: people who are willing and able to participate in common life—and governance structures that actively encourage them.

In lots of ways what I am calling for has to be an unambiguous leap: a straight-up call for a city organized for a very different kind of social milieu, rooted in an alternative vision of ethics and economic life. It is a vision that will require a certain amount of work, creativity, and antagonism, one that just won’t accept neo-liberalism or global capitalism as de facto arbiters of who gets access to the good life. But it’s up to us to contest and offer alternatives to the market as the allocator of land, housing, and resources in our society. I think there are clear routes to a better future, lots of them existing, some latent, and parts we are just going to have to make up.”

Matt Hern.  Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future.  AK Press, 2010.

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