The Zeitgeist

Zeitgeist, film

Has bought not so long ago the book «The Art of City Making» — very much it was pleasant. A fragment from the book...

Better choices, politics and power. City-making is about making choices, applying values, using politics to turn values into policies and exerting power to get your way. Choices reflect our beliefs and attitudes, which are based on values and value judgements. These in turn are shaped by our culture. So the scope, possibilities, style and tenor of a city’s physical look and its social, ecological and economic development are culturally shaped — culture moves centre-stage. If, for example, a culture invests its faith only in the market principle and trusts the drive of capital to produce sensible choices, the logic, interests and points of view of those who control markets will count for more than those who believe market-based decision-making is an essentially impoverished system of choosing. If a culture holds that individual choice is everything — individuals always know best — this impacts the city.

Conversely, if it is held that there is something in the idea of a public, common or collective good that has value and is beyond the vagaries of the market, credence can be given to inspirational and emblematic projects that can lift the public spirit: buildings that are not constructed according to market principles, imitate environmental initiatives, attending to the sickly or investing in youth.

City-making is a cultural project involving a battle about power. Power determines the kind of cities we have and politics is its medium. What are the effects of these different values? Consider Mercer’s ‘quality of living’ rankings of 2006. This US company’s annual survey of 350 cities, focused especially on expatriates, is now seen as authoritative. It considers 39 criteria covering economics, politics, safety, housing and lifestyle. European, Canadian and Australian cities dominate the rankings, with Zurich, Geneva and Vancouver the top three, followed by Vienna. Six of the top eight cities are European. The implications of the market-driven US approach for how city life actual feels to individuals is instructive.
The top US cities are Honolulu at 27th and San Francisco at 28th; Houston, where you cannot walk the streets even if you want to, is the worst of all large US cities at 68th.

Challenging the paradigm

The Art of City-Making wants to be a butterfly whose small movements contribute with many others to grander effects on a global scale. It feels to me that the Zeitgeist is ready to shift, and I want this book to be part of encouraging a new spirit of the times. This involves more than just altering the climate of opinion or intellectual atmosphere. A Zeitgeist is felt more deeply. It is less malleable and it is sensed viscerally, so providing energy and focus. It makes every person who feels it want to be an active agent, pulling them along with a comforting and comfortable instinct bordering on faith.

In each period of history we can discern overarching qualities; these are never formulaic and often contradictory. Intellectual, political, economic and social trends are etched with the characteristic spirit of their era. We can say ‘modern times’ are characterized by an unwavering belief in a particular, progressive view of science on its inexorable journey to the truth, and a faith in technology.

Yet the ‘rationality’ of technology is being called into question and critiques of this approach are escalating in number. (As an example, what is rational about creating global warming and its consequences?) Post-modernism rejects the grand unifying narratives associated with the modern period that try to explain everything. The relative, multiple, culturally determined truths it upholds destabilize the position of the many who want a single answer, so unsurprisingly the truths of the Gods are back. They provide certainty and anchoring. But both the modern and the post-modern exacerbate the fragmentation of knowledge, the one through specialized research and scientific data and the other through the diversity of perspectives. The Enlightenment ideals of progress and reason have taken a battering; their confidence has been shaken.

Part from the book «The Art of City Making»
Author: Charles Landry