Cities as Places of Transformation

Last May, Jayne Engle gave the keynote presentation at the Montreal Urban Sustainability Experience (MUSE) Symposium on the enormous transformative potential of cities – and the thorny obstacles that are preventing the kind of wholesale changes that would allow cities to be liveable, resilient, and inclusive.

Here is the introduction to her presentation: Cities as Places of Transformation.

1. City Song Lines

Has anyone heard of something called ‘Songlines’ in Aboriginal culture?

Songlines are the long Creation story lines that cross landscapes and put geographical and sacred sites into place in some Aboriginal cultures. They are both inspiration and important cultural knowledge.

I’d like to start by reading a ‘City Songline’ by Leonie Sandercock, from her book Cosmopolis II.

“I look into my crystal globe, and I dream of the carnival of the multicultural city…. I don’t want a city where everything stays the same and everyone is afraid of change; I don’t want a city where young African Americans have to sell drugs to make a living, or Thai women are imprisoned in sweat shops in the garment district where they work sixteen hours a day six days a week. I don’t want a city where I am afraid to go out alone at night, or to visit certain neighborhoods even in broad daylight; where pedestrians are immediately suspect, and the homeless always harassed. I don’t want a city where the elderly are irrelevant and ‘youth’ is a problem to be solved by more control.

“I dream of a city of bread and festivals, where those who don’t have the bread aren’t excluded from the carnival. I dream of a city in which action grows out of knowledge and understanding; where you haven’t got it made until you can help others to get where you are or beyond; where social justice is more prized than a balanced budget; where I have a right to my surroundings, and so do all my fellow citizens; where we don’t exist for the city but are seduced by it; where only after consultation with local folks could decisions be made about our neighborhoods; where scarcity does not build a barb-wired fence around carefully guarded inequalities; where no one flaunts their authority and no-one is without authority.

“I want a city where people can cartwheel across pedestrian crossings without being arrested for playfulness; where everyone can paint the sidewalks, and address passers-by without fear of being shot; where there are places of stimulus and places of meditation; where there is music in public squares, and street performers don’t have to have a portfolio and a permit, and street vendors co-exist with shopkeepers. I want a city where people take pleasure in shaping and caring for their environment and are encouraged to do so; where neighbors plant bok choy and taro and broad beans in community gardens. I want a city that is run differently from an accounting firm; where planners ‘plan’ by negotiating desires and fears, mediating memories and hopes, facilitating change and transformation.”

This ‘love song’ as Leonie calls it, is about naming existing narratives and expressing desired ones.  I’ll come back to the topic of city narratives a little later on.  First, I want to share a hypothesis based on the title of this talk — that is that Cities can be Places of Transformation.

Read on! 

CLICK HERE to see the accompanying slides.
We want a country in which:

  • public, private and social sectors are engaged in active efforts to close the gap between the socioeconomic wellbeing of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people
  • the public sector, private investors and philanthropists separately and collaboratively deploy financial capital to create positive social and environmental impact
  • social innovation is an integral part of Canada’s innovation ecosystem, enabling civic institutions to co-create policies, initiatives and programs that enable citizens to contribute a diversity of skills and perspectives to Canadian society
  • public, private and civil society sectors act collaboratively and courageously to advance human thriving and address shared challenges
  • humans’ social and economic footprint is in balance with the natural ecosystems that sustain life.