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City Desired: A Shared Revolution

city desired

While cities are the heart of our survival because they compel us to become "transboundary", a shared revolution needs to be makeshift and informal. So said director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Aromar Revi, at the Kapuscinski Lecture that formed part of the City Desired exhibition. Ashraf Jamal reflects.

Just how disconnected our lives are is what Edgar Pieterse, director of the African Centre for Cities and curator of the City Desired exhibition, chose to remind us of in his introduction to the first Kapuscinski Lecture on the African continent.  We live in "strange times", he began. "Information is ubiquitous", we are privy to "intimate details in the world … our daily lives revolve around a soap opera", and yet, despite our "fundamental interconnectedness"  in which everything becomes "immediately topical"  our experiences remain "devoid of realism, and disjunctive".

There is an urgent need, Edgar said, "for a different consciousness", given that we exist in "a vortex of economic instability", an "epicentre" in which "government is incapable of understanding governance". There are "few people who can read the signs of the time", few people who can "build new cultural imaginings" and "retool" this world.

'Reinvent urban practices'

The opening address was by no means hyperbolic. Rather, Edgar's view demands that we "reinvent urban practices" and "spearhead a global campaign to link universities, social movements, city leaders". With eyes firmly focused on a fraught horizon, he broached the matter of our future. To secure tomorrow's health today is "a political, intellectual and policy challenge", the director of the African Centre for Cities declared. Our aim as "key protagonists on the planet" demands ceaseless "provocation".

On this note he introduced the keynote speaker, Aromar Revi. Titled "Putting the Urban at the Heart of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals", Aromar's riveting talk tracked shifts from the precolonial, colonial, modern, and interestingly, "informal" current moment in human history. We need to "change the rules of the system," he began. We needed to rethink "the mindset out of which systems arise", to "add, evolve, self-organise and transcend paradigms".  Because we are caught at a "critical juncture" requires that we "reset core goals".

Given that "the 21st century may be fundamentally different from the long 20th century" – a difference marked by a flailing West and an ascendant East – in which "Asia is returning to the centre of the global economic system" and, after the Atlantic and Pacific economies, the Indian Ocean economy re-emerges centre stage – what needs to be countenanced is the indisputable "geographical shift of development", for what we are experiencing is "not a mega trend but a gigatrend in a millennial transformation of human culture".

Cities fail to understand the relevance of 'informal settlements'

If cities – which for Aromar are the very "heart" of our survival – are dying it is because they have failed to understand the nature of their ecosystem. The root of the problem lies in the fact that cities have failed to understand the critical relevance of "informal settlements". It is only by improving agricultural systems that we can create "inclusive, productive, resilient cities". What is vitally needed says Aromar, is the "enabling of transboundary learning". The watchwords of the present and the future are: "mobilise, convene, negotiate, communicate, inspire, experiment, educate, implement" – for what we urgently need is not new paradigms "but inspirational vision".

It is not for nothing that this global lecture series is dedicated to Rszard Kapuscinski, the Polish reporter whose defining focus was developing countries. Dubbed the "The Third World Chronicler" or the "Voice of the Poor", Kapuscinski's prevailing reminder is that "we know everything about the global problem of poverty but we do not know how to solve it in practical terms", as Sofia Moreira de Sousa pointed out. The root of the problem lay in the Western-centric perceptual system that dictated each and every inquiry. Whether centrist and synoptic or regional, it was the damaging disregard for the innovation at the heart of the "informal" world – a world at odds with and yet central to any healthy and transformative system.

Cities compel us to become 'transboundary'

The times however are a changing, as Aromar gleefully reminded us. Poverty, it is believed, can be solved. As Kapuscinski never ceased to remind us: "to judge something you have to be there". And it is this hyper-local command of time and place that becomes trenchantly clear as we listened to Aromar Revi's discourse. Director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements and a leading figure in global urban studies, Aromar's decision to place the urban at the heart of global change is nothing short of an inspirational reconfiguration of our fate as a species.

Cities are the future, Aromar declared, not because they offer us immunity but because they compel us to become "transboundary", because they are the coda for a world that is redefining what it means to be human. The creation of "sustainable development goals" requires that we not merely embrace our encroaching dehumanisation, but at this critical disjuncture factored into our post post-industrial moment, that we allow ourselves to reinvent our captive state and, through palpably human interactions, acknowledge the fact that our survival demands the embrace of everything that we are on the verge of losing in the instant that that loss is all the more keenly internalised.

Fundamentally an ethical position, Aromar reminds us that, as Capetonians, as ethical citizens struggling to reimagine the folly of our current state – the immoral separation of the rich and the poor, the catastrophically divided nature of our human settlement, the ongoing brutal impact of apartheid – that we can as a collective, through an imaginative rethinking of the bankrupted status quo, move towards overcoming an incommensurable breach. The African Centre for Cities is showcasing an interactive exhibition dedicated to this vision at the City Hall until 10 December.

We have 'a shared desire for an alternate future'

Titled City Desired, the exhibition's vision anticipates a positive urban future while scrupulously acknowledging the pitfalls. The exhibition examines a "built environment" as a living organism caught in perpetual transformation. Despite a glaring "inequity and division", and a seemingly entrenched "mono-class" ground down by poverty, poor education and a beleaguered inferiority complex, the organisers of City Desired nonetheless celebrate the fact that "ordinary people are getting on with the business of life, love and aspiration".  "Routine interactions are characterised by openness, generosity, goodwill, humour … a shared desire for an alternate future".

What counts, therefore, is the investment in education and in religious, communal, familial, cultural attachments. By focusing on this human reimagining of settlement and change – a vision greatly indebted to Benedict Anderson's notion of "imaginary communities" – City Desired has set up Density Syndicate think-tanks and a youth-inspired interactive forum called Serious Fun. The challenge, of course, is to bring Cape Town's motley community under one roof – the City Hall – the better to inculcate this vision for a shared future.

In spirit the vision is sound; whether it will achieve its goals in the near future is debatable. Perhaps this vision would be better served if it were also to embrace zones beyond the city centre. Imagine this vision reprised in community centres such as the Joseph Stone auditorium in the heart of the Cape Flats – surely then we could deepen and strengthen the reach of this vision?

'Design needs to be more empathetic'

As Alice Rawsthorn urgently reminds us in Hello World: Where Design Meets Life: "Design needs to become more empathetic, and better attuned to the frailties that defy rational analysis yet determine so many elements of our lives." Indeed!

The problem lies not in the vision, which is sound, but in the translation and implementation of that vision across the length and breadth of the city. Here Aromar Revi's watchwords immediately spring to mind. Ours is a makeshift and informal revolution, a revolution that cannot be pre-empted or prepped, but which is unconsciously and collectively triggered. This is the spin required in this late-modern, informal, post post-industrial historical moment. This, I'm sure, is the objective of the African Centre for Cities. For now, however, it seems that the stance remains largely a rhetorical one which, nevertheless, remains thoroughly on point.

If as Jan Szczycinski, manager of the Kapuscinski lecture series, in his opening address kindly and diplomatically declared, "the world begins here at beautiful Cape Point", it is certainly because Cape Town stands at the cusp of two vital economies, that of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans that historically produced the region's heterogeneous cultural community. But, moving inland, acknowledging the rich hybridity of our human settlements, admitting that much remains to be done if, as a city, Cape Town is to embrace the greater body of Africa, it becomes forcefully evident that we remain in the infant stage of great change. The will is certainly there and it is not for nothing that Kapuscinski gifted us with his watershed study of Africa's fate – The Shadow of the Sun.

Watch Aromar Revi's lecture below:

Photo Credit: Cities and Survival/shutterstock