Are we sanitising the city?

Saturday 10 November, 15:4517:00, STORM20, Stormgade 20, 1555 København VBattle of Ideas Europe

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The city is back! After the postwar decades when there were serious debates about whether the city could survive the disfiguring impact of modernism and the destructive effect of suburbanisation, many commentators now proclaim a vibrant future in urban living. Where, until fairly recently, organisations such as UN Habitat advanced portraits of the city as crime-ridden, fragmented, polluted, unhealthy and environmentally damaging, today cities are likely to brand themselves as ‘liveable’ and ‘sustainable’. Around the world, cities compete for a spot at the top of the many different liveability rankings offered by the likes of CNN, National Geographic and the World Economic Forum.

With the dense urbanity of the Victorian city back in fashion, it is the revived cities of Europe that many look to for guidance on creating a better future. Vienna was recently named as the number one city in the annual Global Liveability Index. Bilbao wins plaudits for cultural regeneration, Lyon for sustainable transport. Copenhagen, too, is lauded, regularly topping the UN’s happiness index and a star performer in the World Health Organisation’s Healthy Cities initiative. Indeed, where once the inherent messiness and pollution of cities might have prompted residents to seek an escape to greenery and the cleaner air of the suburbs or beyond, today the new wave of European cities sell themselves as the cleaner and greener, healthier and happier options.

But is there a downside? For some critics the contemporary city is becoming overly manufactured and cleansed of any spontaneity or individuality. After all, historically cities were often edgy in nature and renowned for the sense of freedom and opportunities for risk-taking that they offered. For example, there was the artistic laboratory of Weimar Berlin or the urban buzz of 1970s New York. Ed Hollis, author of The Secret life of Buildings, once noted that ‘public engagement in public spaces is a risky and threatening affair – and so it should be’. But with cities often gentrifying and increasingly regulating their public spaces, is there a danger we undermine the creative opportunities that cities need to thrive?

Of course there has long been regulatory intrusions into the free life of the city, from public-health measures to controls on pollution. But with the likes of obesity and depression seemingly on the rise worldwide, many see the need for cities to experiment with design and planning solutions and public space measures. On the other hand, are we creating too many controls? While minorities are thankfully rarely targeted on the traditional grounds of race or gender these days, are new groups being targeted for no reason other than that they beg, busk or drive, and drink or light up a cigarette? Are cities are becoming overly sanitised and citizens stripped of the freedom to make meaningful choices?