Greenshoots in a graveyard
October is urban month. The calendar is filled with webinars where speakers will tell you about how rapidly the world is urbanizing (and pandemically suburbanising); the threats of inequality, climate change and the opportunities of placemaking, green transit, new technologies and the importance of engagement and gender and considering vulnerability.
You’ll hear mostly from minority world people, or minority people in positions of power in the majority world. They’ll talk about “inclusion” as if it is a process where they (we, let’s be honest I am firmly in this category) open the door to the majority, while the majority continue to relentlessly make the cities we live in - largely oblivious to all this talk of inclusion.
Someone will talk about the science of the city - how we can programme them like machines, if we can only collect enough data, and build the correct algorithms or predictive models.
In another space, that will be hotly contested - we need to reclaim cities from technology. Reconnect with humanity and nature.
On Twitter, I go by “UrbanJodi”. I used to be known for generating and sharing a plethora of positive and exciting content and ideas about how to make our city better - tactical urbanism, placemaking events, totally-possible-housing-projects, new mobility experiments, random acts of kindness and connections with people and celebrating the very many citizen and City led projects on the go (mostly in Cape Town, the project I’ve dedicated my career and civic duties to).
Today, I am hostile.
If people don’t know the work I do (I believe still productive and progressive), they will think I spend my days complaining.
I had coffee with a transport planner the other day. They were enthusiastic about a new process. We don’t know each other well, but we cried together.
That’s not normal.
We are collectively traumatised.
We are traumatised by the graveyard of projects we have birthed that got squashed by politicians and their aids. The projects we created, or used to celebrate and cheer, that we now seek out and find deserted - a generation of active citizens, innovative officials and urbanists are recoiled into bureaucratic work, cookie-cutter private sector work, are dead by suicide or have emigrated - and taken all their know-how and passion for our city with them.
We are traumatised by the impotence of policy and spend to make meaningful change on the growing number of urban poor - the dreams of restructuring the city, of improving lives - increasingly it appears the best we can hope for is just keeping up with growth of informality and stabilising services. Is that really it? Normally I look to young, fresh people to push and drive the aspiration - last year I was challenged by them to say “we can’t afford to be aspirational”.
We are traumatised by the collective trauma of everything our society is going through - the pandemic, the violence, the inequality, the unrest and the corruption and we are traumatised by our own experiences of this.
What I know about trauma is that it reinforces itself - triggers are more easily triggered the more frequently they occur, because those neural pathways become widened and defaulted.
One has to “rewire” the brain. Activate alternate neural pathways, by focusing on other stories. Telling a wider story, a longer timeline story. A true story - we can’t trick or lie to ourselves, but a bigger story and focusing on different pathways.
I don’t want to stop holding people accountable for creating the graveyard. For bullying and belittling change-makers, and then acting like change makers come election season.
But I do want to remember that all the ingredients it takes are here, within us, and replicable in others.
There are young people mobilising to form new Urbanist organisations (watch this space).
There is still an abundance network.
There is still the strength of intermediaries like the EDP doing interesting and gentle work, like facilitation in the food space.
There is the incredible power and learnings of the CANs and CapeTownTogether.
There are people like Mzi, Sindile, Siyabonga and Leanne.
People still believe in Long Street.
Observatory is coming together to talk about safety and care in its community.
Tafelsig continue to build their park.
As Oscar Wilde once said, a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at.
Despite all my frustration, there are good things going on. There are progressive officials quietly driving programmatic change from their own positions, and against all odds. There are a handful of developers who do want to be part of a more progressive spatial and housing regime. There are civic tech teams who want to see citizens and governments empowered to tackle the implications for technology for civic engagement - on everything from improved basic services in informal settlements, to citycrypto (ok, don’t disappear -I’m coming back to this one in a post soon).
And there are people who want to see their own communities thrive - wherever that might be.
On Mandela Day, I was inspired to make the below “Love Languages of Active Citizenry”. Why don’t you pick a language for today, and lean in to support these green shoots in our collective graveyard?