The Life-Sized City vs The Cult of Big

I have a strange suspicion that we’ve been hacked. As people. As societies. We have been led to believe that big is best. That growth is good. For so many years, that you can easily call it a century with the Cult of Big.

This is a transcript of one of my TED x talks — in Münster, Germany in June 2015.

The Cult of Big certainly applies to the economy. You can’t mention the economy without mentioning growth. But I’m not an economist. I work in urbanism. In cities. And the same thing applies.

Cities have to be bigger. Wider. They have to sprawl into the distance as far as the eye can see. That is what makes a city great and good. Or so we’ve been told for many, many years.

Buildings have to be taller, shinier. Reaching for the sky. Breaking world records. Monuments to engineering and, quite possibly, phallic symbols for the male dominated industries that design and build them.

Roads and motorways have to be longer, wider, go farther. More capacity, improved flow, reduced congestion. It’s one of the saddest ironies of urban planning that the only thing we have learned from 100 years of traffic engineering is this: if you make more space for cars, more cars come. It’s sad if you think about all the kabillions of dollars we’ve thrown at this for the past hundred years.

Mega-projects are all the rage. Never finished on time, always obscenely overbudget and yet they make up 8% of the global GDP. We’re fascinated and obsessed by mega-projects.

We, the people — the consumers — are told to spend more. Buy more stuff. The more we buy the better it will be for the economy. For growth. Or so we have been told for a very long time. People who don’t own stuff are heretics.

Perhaps we’ve been hacked, but I believe that we still have the original code inside us. When you have been around for 200,000 years as homo sapiens, you possess that original code. The pure programming.

We can be rational when we want to be. Everyone knows, deep inside, which ice cream will be more enjoyable to eat when choosing between a single, delicious scoop or a monster pile of ice cream. Once in a while we can go crazy, but the single scoop will usually be the best experience. The same applies to food portions.

We’ve lived together in cities for 7000 years. We’re hard wired to understand the basics. Everyone of us who lives in a city knows what a good street should look like. It’s in our urban DNA to know that a human street that is friendly to pedestrians and cyclists and that has lots of green space is the best solution.

We know intuitively and instinctively as a species that size doesn’t matter.

Luckily, somewhere in there, in the dark shadow of the Cult of Big, behind the mountain of Obsessive Growth, there is a lovely little place I call the Life-Sized City. In the Life-Sized City, things are different.

The idea for the life-sized city came from a pint-sized person. Lulu-Sophia. Or just The Lulu as I call her. My daughter. I’ve written articles about her as The World’s Youngest Urbanist. The stuff she says is amazing. We were walking around our neighbourhood one day, holding hands. She was four and a half. She was quiet as we waited for the light to turn green at a crosswalk. She looked around and said, suddenly… “ Daddy, when will my city fit me?

She felt so small, as a kid, on the urban landscape. Everything was out of scale to her. Growth is also important in the Life-Sized City. It’s measured in centimetres and millimetres. Every new millimetre is greeted with a fist pump when a child measures their height. This is the important growth.

In the Life-Sized City we don’t need the failed sciences of traffic modelling and traffic engineering. We just need to apply logic and rationality. Using anthropology to develop traffic models. Mapping the desire lines of citizens and planning based on where they want to go.

Desire lines are democracy in movement. Democracy in motion. Every fraction of every moment of every day the citizens of our cities are sending us silent messages. They’re telling us and showing us with their Desire Lines where they want to go and we should observe this and plan according to these mobility patterns that they are charting out for us.

Urban democracy is important in the Life-Sized City. In Montreal, people take matters into their own hands. A railway creates a barrier between two densely-populated neighbourhoods. Canadian Pacific Railways, who own the tracks, refuses to allow a level-crossing. So the citizens cut holes in the fence to get from A to B.

Canadian Pacific play cat and mouse, covering up the holes. The citizens, however, have a Facebook group to tell each other where the holes are. You cannot stop urban democracy.

In the Life-Sized City you don’t need to use car sales as a growth indicator. That’s so last century. So old-fashioned. Instead, you measure your network of safe, cycle tracks. Your pollution levels. The distance from homes to green spaces. Accessibility.

How do the citizens of Copenhagen get to work and education in the city? 63% ride a bike. Only 9% drive a car. You measure this and you pump your fist when you see cycling and public transport levels rising. You measure how much cyclists contribute to the city. In Copenhagen, citizen cyclists spend 2.34 billion dollars in shops in the city. A powerful force.

You measure bicycle friendly cities around the world using an academic ranking to measure how they are doing. Cities need to know how to measure their progress. This is important for the future of cities.

The bicycle is the chariot of the Life-Sized City — leading the armada of public transport and even car-share vehicles. Bicycles aren’t like cars. They don’t get bigger. They remain largely constant. They are powerful, however. During the financial crisis, the Danish government said, “ let’s build cycle tracks to get back on track”. Imagine that.

Or like the former Mayor of Paris — Bertrand Delanoë — said… “ The fact is that cars no longer have a place in the big cities of our time”. When people like him say things like that, we know that the paradigm is shifting to something better.

In the Life-Sized City change can happen if quick if you want it to. If you change the question.

Cities struggle to reestablish the bicycle as transport. Lots of talk. Lots of baby steps. But then you have cities like Seville, Buenos Aires, Dublin, Paris — cities where there were no bicycles left just seven years ago. Now, in the course of short time, they are modernising and becoming bicycle friendly. With infrastructure and traffic calming and bike share systems. The holy trinity of bicycle urbanism.

For the better part of 100 years we’ve only asked one question of our traffic engineers. How many cars can we move down this street? Modern cities change the question. How many PEOPLE can we move down this street? Using all the transport forms available to us? How can we tackle urbanisation? Change the question.

You can still move stuff around the city. I was involved in research that shows that 51% of goods in cities can be transported by cargo bike. With a bit of creativity, you change the paradigm. Using barges and small terminals and cargo bikes to get goods to the people.

You hear people talk of Shrinking Cities or Declining Cities like its a worrisome thing. A problem. You know what? Maybe those cities are just scaling back to something good. They’re rebooting. Look at Detroit. Or Trieste in Italy.

Urban infill is many things. It can be large scale, but it can also be small scale. Like stuff like this my and my son Felix did. We found a hole in the wall across the street and decided our neighbourhood needed a cinema. So we built one out of Lego.

It’s all about people in the Life-Sized City. Like Felix. The Lulu. All sorts of people populate the Life-Sized City.

In the Life-Sized City children — like Lulu — are not consumers. Statistics. They are little humans. Do not measure them. Do not calculate how much money they will spend or how much profit the Cult of Big will earn off of them in their lives. Design your city around them. Slow down the cars. Reduce pollution. Build cycle tracks so they can ride bikes for transport. Because that’s all they want to do.

It’s time to hack it back. It’s time to rewrite the playbook. Cities will grow but we don’t have to be so completely obsessed with it that it clouds our logic.

Luckily, every city has pockets of life sized goodness. Seek them out. Create some more. Every day you move around your city you can choose to grow your urban landscape. Hack yourself back into your city. It’s time to go back to the future.

The Life-Sized City website.

The Life-Sized City YouTube Channel.

Urban playmaker, designer, host of The Life-Sized City tv series about urbanism. Author of “Copenhagenize”. Impatient Idealist.

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