Do civic realms matter?

“People Don’t need piazzas. They’re at home watching television.”
— Robert Venturi  

I have lived in Launceston Tasmania for two years now. It has been a great experiment in self-deprecation. Does a person need a civic realm to stay sane, be creative, productive, etc.? Though everyone is different, from personal observation, I would say yes. I find my personal productivity gets buoyed each time I leave, and wanes when I’ve been hanging around for too long. The jinxing effect compounds the problem even more, especially if you’re someone like me who needs to wow readers and publishers by being inspired and inspiring.

Looking beyond this case study of one, to the population at large, it is clear this city without an agora has the creative and intellectual output of a wet sock. Launceston’s so-called “creatives” access the web to rip off craft patterns and recipes for making “craft” food. Next to nothing flows outward—except for my own wicked genius, of course. In fairness as well, the university is a strange hive of regular brilliance, thanks to the great studio culture I witness in where I am, and quite a few truly brilliant individuals basing themselves at the far end of the world for bragging rights. Otherwise, there is only me, my sons, my wife, and my cat the creative bird hunter.

There are multiple factors, quite aside from me being a cranky old shit. The low population, the brain-drain to big cities, and the Tasmanian population’s over representation in federal politics which has created a tradition of mooching. But there is also the lack of a public realm. By that I mean, a place to hang out, be seen, get known and in time start sharing creative and productive ideas with others who have some spark too.

Many cities have natural places for making the scene. I can only really comment, in a personal way, on the cities I’ve lived in. The Upper West Side of New York has the shops along Broadway. Singapore has Orchard Road, and neighbourhood hawker centres. Newcastle has the traffic-calmed city mall and a surf beach right next to the CBD. The last example is interesting, because it is a small city.

I suppose you have to trust the tenets of placemaking in appraising adequate civic realms. A vital and productive civic realm has more than one reason to be there at any one time, meaning you could be heading to a business meeting, buying groceries dressed in your house clothes, playing or relaxing, and while doing so have the opportunity of chance interaction with someone you know, who could likewise be wearing any of a number of hats at the time. A lot of my writing about cycling has been inspired by the way my bike helped raised my profile around the beaches and mall back in Newcastle. My experiment living in a city without such a space to parade has taken two years to play out. I thought I would be immune. I had not lived with such deprecation before, so was able to stay in denial. Now I wake up with cold sweats feeling like a prisoner in a cell the size of a house.

Launceston has parks and nature around it—great for clearing ones mind. The problem is the centre. It promises everyone a car park right next to their destination, something that can only be provided through a combination of charging for parking and providing it for customers only. That makes most people want to get in and get out, without hanging around. The only ones not in a rush to get out are the wretched who walked, biked or took public transport and who are generally too stupid to be phased by the “haves” in their cars pulling in and out of mid-block car parking lots.

No civic realm will exist here until suburban shopping centres and on-line shopping grow enough to thoroughly kill retail in the city. The mall I referred to as the civic realm in the city of Newcastle only became a pleasant place to hang out after retail collapsed and spaces were rented on $1 per day rolling leases, employed to hold the squatters at bay.

Australian regional cities don’t have mayors who are elected by yuppie constituents who walk or bike into the city. Decisions effecting the commercial centres are overwhelmingly influenced by commercial landlords in those districts. They think they know what is best for themselves, but they don’t. They reject urban design expertise as not tallying with their own constructed ideas about what is rational. If their customers come by car, it is rational to provide their customers with lots of free parking. If they really looked in the mirror they would see something like the leader of North Korea. Their power in decision making enables them to construct false rationalities and insulate themselves from informed but powerless voices. They think we are out to get them, when we say it has been proven elsewhere that limiting cars in the city will increase their property values.

A Jan Gehl report is gathering dust in a drawer somewhere in our civic administration block. Likewise a petition I’ve signed about pedestrian safety. The business community and their puppets in city hall don’t take any notice. They reinforce each others ignorant misconceptions about cities, what makes them work, and what makes them wealthy. Now would be a good time for you to fly me to your city, to give me a break from this shit hole.

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