I look at things a little differently to many of my friends. At least that is what my nearest and dearest tell me when they explain patiently that my brain seems to be wired differently. If it is wired up at all.
I was a Geographer at Uni and went on to Town Planning afterwards, both fairly mainstream at first glance. I used my training to roam the world in search of and, if hired, implementing master plans for new towns and industrial or urban infrastructure for anyone who commissioned my firm and me. Writing books was incidental to this but provided a release for the creative urges.
Most of my planning assignments have been in countries with contrasting cultures to ours here in western Europe, and people manage their affairs very differently. The global economy may mean that modern urbanism has a lot in common wherever you are, particularly physical land uses such as housing, retail and industrial space, transport networks and the hidden infrastructures of water, power, telecoms and sewerage. But the biggest challenges are always the decision-making and management that lie behind every evolution of urban form.
That is where my differently – or perhaps un – wired brain starts nagging away at me, as I try to make sense of why places work – or not – and what could be done to make things better. I have found myself standing on street corners marveling at how traffic – especially in India – passes through a junction at such speed without every second encounter becoming an almighty car smash. How do pedestrians and drivers avoid each other? I look at pylons on residential streets of any fast-expanding city in the developing world and the caffled up cabling that no-one could possibly trace as to source or destination of supply, whether power, telephone or fibre. Then I walk in suppressed awe through shanty towns of temporary dwellings of the urban poor clinging to the edges of the city that provides work for them often at the cost of appalling physical depravation and quality of living space. Yet these are some of the safest places to roam because the regular inhabitants have enough to worry about without alienating another stranger who might be from the Municipality (we sometimes are) coming to formalize the provision of services in exchange for urban taxes. But you are more likely to get mugged on main street where it is assumed the money and jewelry is circulating. Shanty town communities are robust and though things often operate at the edges of the law, they seem to work. The culture of managing how people get along is always unique and it takes quite a bit of time to understand it.
A lot of urban activity worldwide has been artificially suppressed in lockdowns over the last 12 months to limit the spread of Covid 19. Well more or less; there are stringent controls in town centres perhaps, but not in the shanty towns where authorities are fewer in number and residents are mostly left to their own devices. But it leaves me wondering how much urban activity will return and in what form, when (and if?) we are released from the partial straitjacket of fear of, and separation from our fellow citizens.
Lots of my fellow town planners are now intent on forecasting how much of the urban land uses we had grown used to ‘before’ Covid will return ‘afterwards’. Our High Streets had already been experiencing reductions in fortune as shopping went online. Covid has merely accelerated this. Are offices going to follow the downturn in retail now that so many of us are used to and positively encouraged to work from home? And if offices leave town centres, what will happen to all those support retail and infrastructure services – pubs, coffee shops and sandwich bars as well as the elaborate transport hubs supporting the diurnal tides of commuters that have simply stopped coming and going? If offices and shops disappear, will town centres cease or will they have to find new reasons to exist?
We are starting to imagine what urbanism might look like in a disaggregated future including even the return to low density semi-rural or at least suburban settlements as urban workers choose lower living costs and perhaps more space. And if that happens, how will we de-urbanize built-up areas? That has not happened much before now, because previous uses were regenerated with new ones. But if there is less demand for urban floorspace overall, how will we finance de-urbanization to generate greenspace again?
One of the ways I look at things differently is to consider what all this might do to a generations-old concept of society and how we manage it. None of our responses to keeping going during Covid would have been remotely possible without the rise and rise of online working and communications, together with their supporting technology. Significant parts of the world’s economy have gone online to avoid contagion. But they were already trending that way before pandemic, so can we go back to human connections as we once knew them?
A lot of the fractures that have emerged in society in recent decades originate from the indirect way in which we communicate with each other. Reliance on a hand-held device and social media was at first a massive liberation from a restricted circle of friends based only on those we met in person on a regular basis. Suddenly the world was available to us together with the means to communicate with it via ever more sophisticated image-enhanced graphics and photo editing.
But the opening of personal relations to a limitless public gaze did not take long to become toxic. Ask any modern teenager how they feel about posting images of themselves online. If they are honest, they will admit to fear of isolation and missing out but also that their posts might be misinterpreted and worse, interfered with. Interference all too easily turns to bullying. And bullying originates with those who feel safe from discovery because you cannot always see who is tormenting you; in short cowards. That is what destroys trust in online relations – not knowing how self-image is being portrayed to others. Paradoxically, online communications often lead to isolation.
When dealing with people face to face, most of us can detect hostile reactions to what we say or do just as effectively as what those people actually say. That is instinct working for us and instinct, like trust, is a casualty of the online society. I don’t believe we can survive without the means to build trust.
The necessary teamwork required to enable remote communications effectively is not sustainable when sitting in isolation from each other and only communicating via social media or the ubiquitous Zoom meeting. How can you properly engage with colleagues, not to mention friends and loved ones via a flickering screen? Relationships are built of so much more than what people say to each other from a brief face image on a hand-held smartphone or desk-bound PC. We need body language, eye movement and gesture but mainly touch and feel to become close to each other, literally of course but also metaphorically. By which I mean, generating trust between people who need so much more than visual images to build lasting relations. This principle holds good for forging multi-discipline teams and delivering complex projects as much as it does for the more intimate interrelations of finding and sustaining partnerships for life. Trust is the critical ingredient here. For me, trust can only be engendered face to face and that means being together.
So if it ever happens, I am one who will resist the disappearance of urban forms of living. For all its disadvantages, the interactions of living together represent the summit of understanding the human condition in which we need to connect to progress as a species. Togetherness is obviously essential for procreation but that means not just the re-birth of our species but also the birth of new ideas, the stimulus to invention. We town planners better find ways of reinventing urban space, because for most of us I suspect, coming back together is the only way for our kind to survive and thrive in a better – post Covid – future.
(c) Hugh Roberts
About Fractured Society: Causes, Effects and Resolutions
Scanning across recent decades, Fractured Society … Causes, Effects and Resolutions looks at how human relations have been coming apart psychologically, a situation summarised by a failure to understand each other. Young people seem more stressed than previous generations, while politics are now more polarised than for a long time past. Wherever you look, at gender relations, the working environment, responses to traumatic events and how people relate – positively and negatively – to their sense of place, there are profound strains on how we interact with each other.
But maybe all is not lost! Hugh Roberts examines how every situation can look better in context, applying lessons learned from many years working internationally with different cultures and value systems. He proposes a fresh approach to relationship building, based on empathy and understanding of individual agendas. CV19 has brought communities a renewed sense of collective purpose with digital communication proving vital in sustaining relationships. However, the Internet needs to take its rightful place in, rather than take over, the slow re-building of mutual trust.
Fractured Society delivers an upbeat message advocating a better-connected world created through encouraging us to adopt a positive, empathetic approach to one another, replacing an approach shrouded in fear and mistrust of forming new acquaintances.
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