Friday, 19 May 2017

Reclaiming the streets: community walks for better neighbourhoods

                                         Society of the bespectacled                                     
Whenever I hear words such as "urban renewal", "redevelopment" or "city planning", I shudder; for experience shows that what they really often mean is a new building plan that will impact negatively upon the lives of people and the surrounding landscape. Time and again, urban planners have promoted the idea of progress linked to architectural and urban atrocities that did not take into account people's needs and views of what their neighbourhoods should be like, let alone the aesthetics of those new buildings and areas. Profit, not people, has all too often been at the centre of this approach.
The all too powerful pairing of politicians and urban developers was (and still is) a well-oiled machine that has the legal means and the financial resources to overcome citizens' resistance and legal challenges ahead.
However, this has not always been the case; fortunately, people have stood up and fought against ill-conceived plans that some fat cat (with the help of a conveniently bought politician) wanted to impose in the name of what they understand as modernity.
One such example was the figure of Jane Jacobs, an American-born urban activist who back in the 60s in New York first and in Toronto later led the way and showed us that cities do not have to be the way capitalist and corrupt developers want.
In a heavily male-dominated environment, Jacobs dared challenge the ruling local financial elite and organised a grassroots movement to protect her neighbourhood-Greenwich Village, Manhattan- from the mighty developer Robert Moses, whose plans included a total overhaul of the area. She had to fight prejudice and the arrogance of the establishment who patronised and ridiculed her for both being a woman and for not having an architecture or urbanism academic training. Despite all the scorn she encountered, she became heavily involved in the urban planning movement and her work The Death and Life of  Great American Cities has become a classic book and must-read for anyone interested in the topic from a critical perspective.

Walking in the community: a Jane's walk in Cornes, Compostela (Galiza)
By the time Jacobs passed away in 2006, she'd become a reference and a model for many people involved in grassroots urban projects; an urbanism that had people rather than cars at its heart.
A group of Jane's friends gathered in May 2007 to honour her memory by organising a walk and to celebrate her legacy and ideas. Very soon, this became an annual event that went global and so every year now thousands of people join neighbourhood walks across the world in a sort of street festival of ideas about what sustainable cities should mean. The initiative known as Jane's Walks was born.
These walks, despite (or maybe thanks to) their simplicity, are a very effective and powerful tool to raise awareness and to create a sense of community and belonging among people who wouldn't otherwise have the chance of meeting other like-minded people to discuss issues they all can relate to. Something as simple as walking around the neighbourhood to exchange experiences and views can become an almost cathartic and intense experience; it is also a political statement that challenges a model that promotes individualism and a passive attitude.
I have no doubt whatsoever that Jane Jacobs would be immensely proud of such an initiative that year after year fills the streets with people who care about their cities and their neighbours and are prepared to reclaim the streets.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

A man of his time

Ways of seeing (and thinking)

The news came as no surprise; at 90, John Berger was still as relevant and lucid as you'd expect but he was equally fragile. "Il est parti", confirmed from Paris his granddaughter. I'd like to think he wanted to join Leonard Cohen up there and perhaps was too tired to face a world with the likes of Trump running the show; a nightmare scenario for someone who spent his life supporting and helping the underdog, the dispossessed, the vulnerable.

Who and what was Berger? He was a man of his time: art critic, writer, thinker, storyteller, a humanist full of energy and charm. He was someone who taught us how to look at (and see) things;  not only art, which he did famously through the groundbreaking TV series Ways of Seeing but also the world.
He became notorious in 1972 when, after winning the Booker Prize, denounced the slavery connections in the Caribbean of the award founder Booker McConnell and gave half of the prize to the British Black Panthers, something that did not go well with some parts of the cultural establishment.
He then went to live in the French Alps for most of his life, where he found inspiration for one of his most successful books, Pig Earth (1979), that would become part of the trilogy Into Their Labours. 
An outspoken critic of capitalism, Berger's legacy will remain with us for generations to come and his work will be studied and enjoyed because, as artist David Shrigley has said, he was the "best ever writer on art". I for one will not challenge that.
There is where we will meet, John.