A city is a great cultural artifact. To tell the truth, the city is the greatest cultural artifact produced by humankind. And, as such, it is the result of creativity and cooperation.
Historian Yuval Harari argues that the ability to cooperate flexibly and on a large scale has made human beings the dominant animals on the planet. Social insects, such as bees and ants, cooperate in large numbers, but in a very rigid way. Social mammals, like chimpanzees and wolves, cooperate relatively flexibly, but only on a small scale. Bees are unable to reinvent their social organization from a new opportunity; chimpanzees do not act collectively with hundreds of unknown individuals. And what makes us humans cooperate in this way is the imagination: we create and believe in fiction. When we invent and believe stories, we are able to act in a malleable way with millions of strangers. A very didactic example is money. We believe that a piece of paper has a certain value, with which it is possible to exchange for products and services over time. Nor does a company exist in objective reality: we believe in them, just as we believe in nations. And we are able to work in companies, make money and follow the laws of a country.
Our values, norms and behavior depend on the fictions in which we believe. Sometimes fictions lead us to cooperate for wars. At other times, we are able to produce large cultural artifacts, such as cities.
When we project the future of a city, we are imagining a story. If people believe in this story and identify with it, they will be able to cooperate to make that future happen. But… What stories are told for our cities? How do we intend to live? What dreams do we pursue? What ideals do we believe in? What values do we want to see reflected in cities?
A city is a result of its society. Each culture developed its way of organizing itself in the territory, in its time. And ours is still stuck with the challenges of industrial society, many of them are no longer current. As in industry, where everything is predictable, segmented and functional, the cities that developed within the spirit of that time were also separated in functions: dwelling, work, recreation and transport. All in the scale of the machine. For example: when we walk through pedestrian-scale streets, we see short and rich in detail facades. And when we walk on streets with the scale of the machine, the facades are long and monotonous, with large signs, as they were designed for the speed of automobiles. Massification and control over nature were also decisive aspects. To exemplify, the rivers had their banks rectified and channeled or were even burned out of view; small and traditional shops on the streets have been replaced by large franchises within shopping malls, which actually could be anywhere.
One of the consequences of mass society is the tendency for people to feel powerless and almost conditioned to repeat patterns without further reflection. This led to a trivialization of the loss of human and urban values. And so, we distorted the notion of what a city should be. City means “place for citizens”, but the space for citizenship has been lost. Critical capacity gave way to a standardized script in which the difference was not accepted. In fact, for a while, the family had a definite format, the choice of profession was for life, long-lasting marriage, children, the house, the car, retirement … If this script could make sense in the 20th century, it is definitely no longer valid in the 21st century. Industrial logic failed in the utopias of happiness that it promised us and created cities without life and without social interaction.
In our contemporary society, life is dynamic. Our environment, work and relationships are more fluid, flexible and unpredictable than ever. The city, just like life, cannot be massified and reduced to utilitarian aspects. Urbanism, for example, is a mix of nature, technology, traditions and feelings. We need to experience what we use to call culture and it is precisely in the set of small values that lies the magic of life and the mystique of cities. Contact with nature, social interaction, the enjoyment of arts and material and immaterial heritage are essential for cities and for people. In a time when the majority of the population lives in urban areas, it can be said that cities are our habitat. When we talk about creativity, diversity, democracy and sustainability, it is implied that we want to create truly human habitats. And then: which stories are we going to create? And which stories will we cooperate with?