If I was still a city councilor and traveling around Europe ‘au frais de la princess’ (at public expense), I would be with a group of other city officials and we would be earnestly studying ‘best practices’. In Sweden, we would be looking at the ‘waste treatment and heating systems’ In Amsterdam, it would be bicycle transportation. In Bordeaux, it would be their new surface rail.
It’s the city as machine approach to running a city. Find out who does what best (best practices) and then come home with a recommendation to copy it. This is how change usually happens. Innovation rarely happens by invention, it is transmitted mostly by imitation. People have run cities this way from the beginning of time. The phonetic alphabet was invented in a couple of small Sumerian cities in modern day Iraq and within a couple of generations, the concept of the phonetic alphabet had spread to Egypt and throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
We see exactly the same thing happening today with something as mundane city bicycle rentals. It began in Lyon and a year later was adopted by Paris and within a few more just about every city in Europe was rushing to bring in their own versions. But I’m no longer a city councilor and no one is paying for my travel time but me. I don’t have to rush back to Ottawa on a red-eye flight and write a report up on the ‘best practices’ of Stockholm, Barcelona or Bordeaux.
I’m just hanging out in cities, going where I want, when I want, talking to who I want: Buskers in the subway, the guys cleaning and sweeping the streets, a young mother diapering her baby on a park bench. It’s not the travel of ‘best practices’, but it is how a city lives and breathes. And it’s a very different place from the city as machine vision that I spent so many years fighting at Ottawa City Hall.
For most city councilors managing a city is an accounting exercise. “How do I keep the ‘machine’ of the city going for the cheapest, possible price?’ Will a bicycle reduce my transportation costs? And if so how and by how much? Everything is always reduced to an accounting exercise. When I was fighting the Lansdowne Park conversion to a mall, I was told over and over again, “Clive, don’t talk about civic values or heritage or grass versus a parking lot, talk about costs – that’s what council and people care about.
But when I travel in European cities, what I see is all the physical stuff is quite similar from Istanbul to Paris. Some cities have slightly better water treatment systems than others, some have better bus service or rail and so on, but what really varies from the Canadian scene is the vision of a the city as citizen. You see this in Paris in spades.
At Paris city hall, you can pick up brochures on free legal advice, summer in the city for seniors, sports in the city for the young. Paris City Hall funds 50 student/municipal projects. In Ottawa, it took more than 10 years of city hall opposing students request for a universal transit pass before a temporary one was approved. The oldest, most photographed and most important part of the city is something that was built back in 1833. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The heart of Paris, the Seine is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but what an exceptional difference in the way the citizens of Paris approached their world heritage site and the way Ottawa has. Paris city hall is now in the process like Ottawa is of redeveloping the banks of their most important and famous site, the river banks of the Seine. Their redevelopment features nine different projects – all public – and the purpose of which is to better integrate the pedestrian uses and the park spaces with the river.
The Tuileries, a park about the size of Lansdowne Park is now cut off from the Seine by a broad and busy highway. The project will integrate the park with the Seine by taking part of it right down to the river’s edge. The roadway is going to be reduced in size. In Paris, the public space beside the Seine is going to be increased to improve the local and tourist access to and use of the banks of the Seine. Compare this to what is happening in Ottawa where the public space of Lansdowne is being dramatically reduced through a conversion to consumer and private use.
How do you account for such a dramatic difference between the two capital cities? I don’t think you will find the answer in ‘best practices’. They do it differently in Paris because Parisians see their city as something more than a collection of functions harnessed to credit and debit columns. They see Paris as their home and they want their home to be beautiful and comfortable as possible.
From Paris to Barcelona, Berlin to Copenhagen, you will find one common threat that unites all these cities and it won’t be the ‘best practices’ machinery of running the city. It will be civic pride. It will be the sense of being a Berliner, a Barcelonan, a Parisian. There is a stone in front of Paris City Hall which is engraved with a message from Charles DeGaulle. The General want it recorded in stone that no one liberated Paris including his troops. The Parisians liberated themselves with their own blood, and though that’s not a best practice anyone can record and take home for their city council to copy with a new by-law, it’s no less real.
photo by Mathieu Marquer