what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

user-friendly cities - a missing argument

A visit last week to the office which manages the project I lead here led to another interesting conversation with one of the many pleasant young Bulgarians one finds here in consultancies, academia and foundations. As always, there was a surprised reaction to my characterisation of Sofia as one of Europe’s best capital cities. I gushed – as I usually do – about the charm of central Sofia
with only a couple of high-rise buildings, its small shops, narrow streets, trams and atmosphere, the owners on the doorstep with a coffee and cigarette talking with friends; with its parks and buskers with their retro music.
Of course the downside of such charm is that those (young and old) who run the tiny vegetable, dressmakers, tricotage (thread); hairdresser shops and various types of galleries barely make a living. How many of them are rented, I wonder, and therefore vulnerable to landlord rental hikes and commercial redevelopment?
And I wonder how many of those who engage in this sort of soulless redevelopment realise what they are destroying – the sheer pleasure of wandering in friendly and attractive neighbourhoods. Is there nothing which can counter this Mammon? Do the city authorities realise what an asset they have? If so, are they doing anything about it? The lady mayor is certainly a huge improvement on her predecessor who, I was told yesterday, used to charge significant sums for those who wanted an audience with him to discuss their problems.
Mayor Jordanka has introduced traffic-free days; cleared many cars from the pavements and created bike lanes (where Denmark, Germany and Netherlands have blazed a trail). Here she is with a new Deputy Mayor who was, until October 2011, Deputy Minister of Culture

But have her advisers looked to the examples from Italian cities - whose city fathers well understood the treasures for which they had responsibility - and introduced regulations, decades ago, which made it very difficult to change the commercial use of centrally-located shops. Banks and mobile phone shops are an abomination – and should be located in side-streets (like whore-houses).
We need to understand the reasons which have produced such soulless, homogeneous monstrosities in so many European cities. The explanation is generally simple - a combination of political pygmies and professional advisers seduced by commercial interests. Their fall-back argument is the loss of municipal revenue from freezing commercial useage which serves the needs of the average citizen – as against the fickle purchases of young, transient, gentrifying residents who resemble so much the destructive Genghis Khan hordes who swarmed through these areas centuries before.

So, those who respect this human-scale really do need to meet this argument. I've mentioned several times the writings of Paul Kingsnorth who is one of the few people to deal with this isse. Even he, however, has not dealt with this central question.

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