Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

2. Planning for cities free of myths becoming ideologies

As everyone participating in the conference ‘Myth of the City’ realizes regardless whether now poets or planners, planning is not at all that easy. Neither is it self understood that poetry, in particular poetic observations about life in cities, has any bearing upon decisions taken by city councils or managements of dominant organizations e.g. of a housing estate. Moreover, there are many others involved which give shape to a city and its life, among them engineers, traffic controllers, entrepreneurs, police chiefs etc. while entities like hospitals, airports, sport arenas, port authority etc. exert influence as well. And then there are the multiple private households existing in forms of settlements of various characteristics.

That variety of those who have a decisive influence upon life in a city needs to be comprehended. It sets a certain tone and shapes the plans of cities by having all of a sudden pedestrian only shopping malls or else, as the case in Athens, Lambraki single handed puts his stamp on the cultural landscape by constructing Megaron Music and Festival hall. As it is usual in Greece due to a lack of a civil society, and no in-between family and political parties with regards to public life, rich individuals tend to give in to their personal wishes to leave a mark. They do so all the more in the absence of any social contract within society as a whole.

It became also obvious that while total planning can be rejected on various grounds, there is still the question of participation in need to be resolved. For instance, the Berlin architect Juergen Eckhardt suggested a planning procedure which would include children in the process of design and implementation. Still, the key word here is ‘citizens’ participation’, but this does not include as of yet the involvement of poets. That calls for a special consideration with the aim to enhance as Voula Mega stressed as being of importance, the ‘enlightened capacity’ of planners (and architects).

Since the question of planning for a city of the future has not as of yet been understood as a profound cultural one, there is needed further reflections on this matter. Such reflections have to take into account the ‘failure of the Enlightenment’ (Adorno / Horkheimer). That is why the conference ‘Myth of the City’ is so crucial for one special aspect thereof. By helping to clarify the role of ‘myths’ and what would not be desirable, namely to have these myths be transformed into ideologies, poets like Katerina Anghelaki Rooke find new ways of expressing a desire for life in cities.

Why it does not come to participation, needs also further explanations. Just as much many people exclude themselves from poetry in the belief they would not understand expressions of the lyrical ‘I’, participation in culture and therefore in the life of a city is not at all self understood. The psychoanalyst Mitscherlich would maintain in post war Germany it did not come to participation despite culture being there, available to all, since something deeper prevented them. He maintained that without going through a phase of mourning the trust in other people lost due to the traumatic experiences made during Second World War, there would not come about a renewed engagement of people in public life. Often these self-exclusions, as if they do not count, are of no value to society, result out of wrong perceptions but also show to what elite cultures and a certain education system selecting the successful to make the way free for them compared to those written literally off can reproduce within urban society. Thus it was most important to follow the trend of the discussions between poets and planners and realize that participation depends upon comprehending both the analytical and the poetic (metaphorical) way of describing life.

Unfortunately since Homer these two spheres of the world, the mythical and the rational, have been separated. It set the stage for the organizational strategies which were to prevail not merely as ‘division of labor’ (Adam Schmidt) but also as separation between work without meaning and pleasure. Adorno and Horkheimer describe in ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’ that this started already when Odyssey passed the Sirens by ordering his crew to bind him to the mast while they put wax into their ears in order not to hear these beautiful and enchanting, but dangerous songs. Thus the crew worked to get through the passage while Odyssey could experience the pleasure of hearing the songs without endangering the working crew. That division prevails till to date. It explains why people exclude themselves from culture while those experience cultural pleasures often do so in the illusion they can do so only outside work and this without any further consequences for whatever they do in practical life. It renders culture to be irrelevant while such a dualistic approach reinforces the problems of cities and makes any strategy aiming to find solutions on the basis of full participation not merely fruitless, but highly ambivalent as well.

In a second step this meant considering how ‘myths’ keep people searching for some truths in their lives. It may only be possible by a certain confrontation as described, for example, by Paula Meehan with regards her encounter with Medusa. This confrontation is accompanied very much by a wish the monster proves in the final end to be but a hoax and instead of the beast a gentle man steps forth. The fear inside has most likely led to such projections. Important is to keep this kind of confrontation calm and sober.

How is it then possible to question myths, especially those who have proven over time to be a powerful source of certain images. And while questioning, it still matters to give some answers to these questions. It would be in the eyes of philosopher Bart Verschaffel a matter to trace the glance and to comprehend cultural development as progress is being made over time. Here he relates the creation of public spaces in order that public truths can be questioned. It leads on to open debate. If done in a democratic way, the debate enables everyone to question the underlying assumptions behind a certain image a city holds and therefore turns to a myth to ensure a repetition of same or similar experiences. In philosophy that is called self fulfilling prophecies e.g. come to Paris and you will fall in love. Life means questioning as much as affirmation this basic assumption. That is why city usually make the mistake to confuse this with the need to uphold a certain image as if this is sufficient to keep the myth intact.

The questioning of myths would come close to what Herodot did according to Polish journalist Kapuscinski, namely to question the belief of Greeks that they created the Gods themselves. They did not wish to admit that they had adopted them from the Egyptian culture. Always such presumptions prevail and for many city cultures they prove fatal, if no one dares to question them. That would spell the end of culture and thus of life in the city itself. A city can only exist if open, ready to be questioned, in order to be truthful.

A survey of various attempts to bring about ‘citizens’ participation’ will reveal that all of them do not come even close to the experiences made during the Renaissance. They everyone became involved in the decision making process, especially when it meant to include the arts and artists in shaping the city of the future. Painting, sculpture, architecture, music, dance and poetry worked all together in creating the preconditions for an accessible language. Giotto’s portrait of the church as a three folded power holder who uses deception of icons and symbols to keep the masses of the people outside while claiming historical truths as if Jesus was born inside its institution, can be taken as an example of early Enlightenment. Everything done for the city was based then on the idea that the city as a free republic should exist. Besides having monetary decisions made out in the open, in public (even though Habermas would question this assertion), it was clear that libraries were needed among many other factors to attract the best minds and most skilled artists. (Alone this consideration as to what enhances the attraction of a city was very substantial compared to the public relation, only image related exercises cities deploy nowadays to gain in reputation. But then not artists and scientists are wanted, but tourists as consumers of mere cultural and other functions of the city.)

Michel Angelo shared among others that view despite the fateful interrelationship between aristocracy, the Pope (along with the clergy inside a rigid hierarchy) and enlightened dictators who could only be benevolent to the arts as long as they had the privilege to rule. Alone the fact that these enlightened periods lasted as long as these benevolent dictators were in power says something about the special conditions of the Renaissance. This period did not take place simultaneously in all Italian cities of that time, but according to very different time patterns. Still the event was started when writers and artists turned to the people, expressing themselves in their rather than in the Latin language of the church, in order to make possible participation. Participation begins, so their conclusion, by not projecting too much power upon those who claim to hold the power. Already Giotto showed this enlightening inclinations by giving people a chance to see power (at that time the church) from both sides, the believers in that power, the masses of people, and the sober perception of what was after all a theatrical trap, nothing else, insofar as the cross hanging over the entrance was shown from behind as just something dangling for a thin wire.

How true participation by citizens is brought about, that remains a mystery. During the Renaissance there existed similar conditions, but since then studies have revealed various models exist, but only those succeed if they are capable of giving a ‘voice’ to people. It means not only to let them speak up, but their vote counts. All too often feelings, thoughts and opinions of the ordinary people, including those just passing by, are ignored. As a matter of fact prior to someone being considered to be a citizen with a voice in the affairs of the city, he had to be hugely wealthy and therefore influential.

Poets can contribute to making these ignored voices be heard, as does Brendan Kennelly. He listens, for instance, to those children living in the streets and who have a real story to tell.

Thus while there are failures or serious short-comings in planning procedures with many decisions made affecting negatively the life in cities, there is, however, no immediate conclusion to be drawn on how to arrive at decisions which still respect and heed ‘measures of life’.

As stated already in the first session of the conference when debating at the high tech park of FORTH outside Iraklion, Crete, with the subject being ‘Technology and Culture: the Future of Cities’, the concept of life in cities is itself in question. After all it is not at all easy to give a differentiated orientation to anyone, never mind to oneself. This is especially the case when attempting to articulate in private and in public (if the possibility exists) any qualitative opinion one may have about life in cities. Nevertheless such failed articulation attempts can point quite easily to the fact that life in cities has become impossible.

The problem remains what to do next? Any answer will depend at several different levels as to how planning is perceived, administered and implemented. Most decisive shall be, however, the kind of responses within cities to the apparent need or not for planning. It should not depend upon mere circumstances, but in a refined sense orientate itself much closer to how life in cities does and can evolve, once given the chance to unfold. The latter is clearly a cultural measure but so far the linkage between planning and culture has not been understood very well.

Among the many things which offset proper planning procedures are extreme cases of life threatening aspects. To that can be added many more cases which simply overburden the human mind on a daily basis but due to a lack of alternatives people cope with a duality in the transport system with clearly a higher priority being given to private over public transportation, and to which all planning systems adopt accordingly.

One of the greatest threats is loss of orientation. This comes about when people within the city no longer relate in any conscious way to the complexity they live in and which is in need of being taken care of. Consequently solutions preparing the grounds for further administrative measures of the city are more imposed rather than an outcome of participation. This is because the importance of an ongoing interaction between people and key institutions involved in the decision making process is not perceived. Instead arrangements with big companies are made often in such a fashion that everyone else is sidelined. For instance, Eric Antonis was amazed after having become cultural senator how the mayor of Antwerp and a potential investor of a housing estate could decide top-down and by themselves, if the planned intervention is not suitable for that entire block in the city, then the one three streets over will do. He was amazed by the absence of any consideration of the people living there at the moment. With loss of orientation go hand in hand a feeling of futility and uselessness. That sets in when people feel themselves to be superfluous i.e. they do not count, not even as a critical mass which could make a difference in how life in the city could be shaped. Overall orientation can be given only if a city reaches out to people so that they can enjoy not only what they are doing now, but also become engaged in planning for the future. A whiff of that sense can be experienced when a city does prepare itself to host some big event like the Olympic Games. The kind of personal investments people are prepared to make then can be linked to special measures, such as obtaining financial support if the houses are painted and modernized. But such measures must be integrated into an overall planning concept, indeed Master Plan, if the outcome is to be secured by thought through strategies.

There is a specific problem connected with complexity as such. For one, it is usually shunned as it stands for being over demanded. It is reflected immediately in a lack of coordination leading to gaps in working together precisely where it would matter not to go ahead just individually, but collectively. As a matter of fact the sub-cultures which have replaced urban culture no longer uphold any interest in coming to terms with complexity. For one, it is a matter of not secondary, but primary knowledge which is needed if planners and poets are to envision together future urban developments and shape responses accordingly. Also, complexity withstanding, there is all too often incurred a kind of split off into particular streams, forms of localism, reductionism and over simplifications. At the same time, those who prefer to maintain their own status of administrating access to resources will uphold complexity as a way to ward off criticism, or even more directly by people not knowing what is going on, to put everyone else on hold while pretending to clear up first of all this complex matter. People wait then for the outcome to be announced while decisions to go ahead are made more often under the table than in public. That has direct implications as to the types of commitments politicians usually make for planning procedures. They do announce only in public the start of studies being undertaken by experts and then reappear once everything has been finalized. As these include tricks of the political trade very often things are made into a statutory i.e. legal pronouncement even before having taken into account the various opinions and objections. This is because politics understands itself primarily as getting things done rather than delaying the decision for implementation. Again the time factor plays here an essential role as to when issues are compressed so much that no time is allowed to come really to terms with all the complex issues entailed in how the brief for the studies were formulated, interpreted and finally fulfilled. Clearly planning as implementation process is also subject to many more wrong interpretations than being limited in what it can do as compared to what is not possible e.g. not to build along the shore line. As has been argued along with the examples given by Sue Tilden, more often lack of enforcement or of not observing certain key parameters is due to lack of a cultural consensus around some key values rather than having to do with the legal status or not of some planning proposal.

Another danger is that complexity is perceived by ideological and popular forces as something threatening certain key identities which rally around some simple point e.g. the city should remain free of foreigners and illegal immigrants. Perception of threats and demands for reactionary responses reinforce each other to the point of wishing to avoid being held responsible for the real problems caused by lack of communication and break down in trust between people who live in the city. Nikos Stavrolakis showed convincingly on hand of a city like Thessaloniki the real problems begin in earnest when one movement wishes a single cultural and ideological stamp is put upon a city, and therefore cultural diversity driven out or perceived as a threat according to which certain responses and measures are deemed as necessary, even if exclusive and discriminatory. As a matter of fact, the unity of perception required to uphold manifold forms of life presupposes the ability to live with complexity and thereby retain open urban structures which welcome the stranger instead of greeting him a priori with hostility and mistrust. The failure of upholding the multi-cultural aspect of cities like Sarajevo can even lead to war as demonstrated by the beak-up of former Yugoslavia and the subsequent bombardment of Sarajevo. Again this means planning has to take into consideration how to accommodate different cultures while avoiding violence in cities.

To come back to the point made by Paula Meehan, there is a need to question myths before they become ideologies. She admits of having been herself guilty of such conversion attempts. It would not be good to have a city ruled by a planning ideology whatever kind. Planning is not the working out of a simple idea to be interpreted as to how land is to be used or what is allowed, what not when it comes to regulate how a city can and does expand. If experiences made are to be worked through by taking care of details while comprehending the complexity of the city, then planning based on poetic visions would include acts like that of a painter who cannot take off his eyes from a certain bend in the river with the houses lining on the other side to strengthen the city’s profile, skyline and potentials. It may be called an aesthetical experience which inspires to further artistic expressions as did Monet of Waterloo Bridge in London. Certainly planning would be well advised to ensure that the city of the future does allow for such aesthetical and therefore as well poetic experiences. That can be understood as making possible something substantial. But it is only possible if free from any ideology, influence thereof.


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