The Milano master-class (sound and transcript)

31. Towards the city of the 22nd century

#lesson4 #urbanism #uncertainty #observation #fasttrain #cheating #spontaneouscity

Paul : The more I walk, the fewer theories or certainties I have on cities or good planning practices, the città diffusa or Zwischenstadt. I don’t know. The more I go along, the less certain I am.

Baptiste : But when you started becoming interested in these practices, were you driven by a burning desire to act?

Paul : In the city planning agency where I was working, there was very little field work; there was never any time to go into the field. My colleagues never wanted to go outside, because they had “real work” to do. I, on the other hand, wanted to go into the field, but that’s not real work. I think there is a real reason to get people outside—people from all professions: elected officials, anybody working on the city, anybody doing city planning.

Baptiste : What are the advantages of going outside for an urbanist?

Paul : To have fewer certainties. I remember when I was a student, when we described what we did to foreign students, we sounded like God! We did everything: commercial strategy, planning, transportation. We were like almighty planners, the people who fix ailing cities, who cure them. We acted like we did it all.
And as an urbanist, Metropolitan Trails taught me to watch and observe; and now my theory on urban planning and on the true role of urbanists is that they should do almost the least amount of work possible, and they should leave room for spontaneity in cities, because that’s when the best things appear. And it’s when we make highways and projects, when we are brimming with amazing urban planning ideas, that’s when we make the biggest mistakes, because there are always consequences down the line. As a planner, trails have taught me humility.

Baptiste : Humility comes from the ground, humus.

Boris : Yes, I’m very familiar with that sense. And at a certain point, I realized: “We shouldn’t be looking for solutions to problems”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t undertake projects. When I’m very familiar with an area and I have walked and walked and walked through a zone, I sometimes get ideas in the night—or very early in the morning as I’m waking up—on something I want to bring to fruition, not to resolve something, but because I really want to do it or would if I had the means.

Paul : Another thing I really care about right now: I live in Toulon, which is a city where public speech does not exist, where people don’t simply speak outside. Instead, there’s a culture of private debate. Decision makers discuss amongst themselves, make deals, and so then when it comes time to vote, the decision has already been made. So, there isn’t a culture of debate where things can be aired out and where more or less important truths be spoken. People aren’t theatrical like Nicolas. So, when Nicolas comes, it’s a breath of fresh air, and it makes me fight harder for a public space of discussion, and I am really glad to do walks now in Toulon and gain a loyal following and accustom people to exchanging ideas. When people have the right to speak about a building in a neighborhood, and a local is able to respond, it’s good for everyone. It breaks the silence and breathes life into the city. It’s important in a so-called free and democratic society to be accustomed to speaking out without the fear of saying something stupid.

Boris : What we’re after is a feeling of uncertainty. And there is a kind of false sense of certainty in the notion of democracy.

Paul : We are supposed to be a model of freedom for the world. Dictatorships are elsewhere, not here; but at the same time, we realize we’re afraid to broach some innocuous topics in public! That’s not right. We have to fight against that.

Baptiste : The more you walk, the more uncertain you are. And yet when we first started walking together, you said something that stayed with me: you said that the role of an urbanist should be to draw a line beyond which nothing should be built, and to have strict divisions between the city and nature. It’s an idea that we find elsewhere, for instance in the work of the urbanist and geographer Augustin Berque. Do you think the border between nature and the city is real or utopian? Or is it not at all real? Or will it come to be in the 22nd century?

Paul : It’s an interesting topic of conversation, but I think we are living in precarious times when it comes to the planet and natural resources, and what the planet is capable of handling. At a certain point, it won’t be able to hold on anymore; and when it comes to distances and resources (it’s all linked), we are cheating reality, since we use oil for fast transportation, but that won’t be tenable without fossil fuels.

Baptiste: We were all moved by a nineteenth-century Vaucluse map where all the cities in red were perfectly contained within the city walls: nothing spilled out around the walls. There were ring-shaped fields, and everything was irrigated, and this was a map of a robust area, from what we can imagine based on the map …. Do you think cities will return within their borders? Will we see this kind of city planning again in the twenty-second century?

Paul : If we run out of oil, many urban areas located outside of cities—places inhabited by commuters—will not be sustainable. Maybe they’ll have to become farms in the immediate outskirts of cities, with animals and crops. We can imagine a repurposing of what are today residential buildings into something that will make sense based on their geographic location, which is more in the countryside. In fact, today we perhaps have the tendency of pushing the limits of what we call the peri-urban—it’s practically everything—and over time that will become more refined and even disappear so we can arrive at a clearer situation that’s easier and better adapted to our lifestyles: there’s the city, and then there’s the rustic. Because when we talk about peri-urban landscapes, we are talking about cars and transportation.

Fivos : What would be the pessimistic outlook?

Paul : Gated communities and then a civil war all around?
Metropolitan Trails are also about rediscovering the true distance between things. For instance, walking our daily commute shows us that fast forms of transportation are violence to the landscape. Travelling a distance of 15 kilometers is not nothing. It relies on a trick of energy, and it’s important to realize that. I don’t know if the express transportation project for Greater Paris is the solution. By building a fast train over the Plateau de Saclay, we will be generating consequences that we can’t anticipate, and people will live even farther out. I think we need to get back to basics. And stop cheating. That would mean being against fast forms of transportation, leaving room for spontaneity and diversity in the city, letting the city live, unsegmented and organically …. We can see that this happens on its own: business hubs become commercial zones, with schools popping up where they can, places of worship, small businesses …. I’m becoming more and more liberal, but in a world where wealth is not horded. I’m about free-market sharing.

Boris : Are you familiar with the concept of retroactive urbanism? You let things develop organically up to a certain point. That way, you get more diversity, density, and small-scale developments. And after, you set up large-scale infrastructure like green spaces, a park (this is tricky from an implementation standpoint). A government study (German or European) on the future of big cities says that in twenty years, considerably more people will be living in large cities, and wonders if that’s a good thing. And the study provides three or four things that cities should have.

One of the criteria is “character” (Eigenart). There isn’t character where we are right now; we could by anywhere. But when you let things develop organically, you always end up with character. And if character is one of the five things—not soft but hard things—that cities should have, it might be useful to set up infrastructure later on.