Berlin Lab

Finding the Thread

Finding the Thread

A week ago, I flew home from Mumbai and put my feet on the pavement of my own city for the first time in over a year. The 21.5 waking hours of my 23.5-hour flight were some of the most mentally industrious I can recall in quite some time. In my mind, this wasn’t just the flight home from Mumbai—it was the symbolic close to my personal experience of this project’s journey through three incredible and complex cities. And I gave myself a task for those hours: to extract from my myriad experiences one singular thought—one single lesson or idea that would lash together my thousands of lessons from the Lab in New York, Berlin, and Mumbai.

It wasn’t an easy task. The three cities, while comparable in some respects, possess vastly differing strengths and weaknesses. They grapple with often directly contrasting issues, and celebrate varying successes. Each of the cities has lessons to both teach the world and learn from it, and those lessons also differ greatly from one another. But if there’s anything I’ve learned as a magazine writer-cum-Lab-blogger, it’s to never tackle more than one thought at a time in a post.

So here I go. In a sea of thousands of thoughts, a single connecting thread:

If there is one gaping issue that needs be addressed in cities across the board today, it is that of the balance between citizen and government power and responsibility. In the time when we need it the most, cities around the world are utterly failing in striking an essential balance between giving citizens enough control over the shape of their environments and the solutions to the problems within them, and forcing them to bear too much responsibility.

In the developed world, there is a lot of talk these days about meaningful engagement. Citizens know that they deserve to have a say in how their cities are shaped, and they’re bursting with great ideas. But gestures governments make to allow them to get involved are, for the most part, merely token ones.

In New York and Berlin, it was made abundantly clear how the rigid structures of development and other policies leave little room for people to genuinely involve themselves. People rightfully get excited about things like participatory budgeting, where communities get to control a small pot of discretionary community funds, or websites that allow citizens to contribute ideas for park design. But the reality is that these gestures, while a great start, hardly carry over to the largest issues that affect people’s lives. Either cities are asking for input and not truly acting upon what they’re being told; they’re asking for input in outdated an inappropriate fashions; or the process of active participation is simply not possible due to political barriers.

In Berlin, for instance, we saw how citizens who are desperate to find solutions to the crippling impact of sharply rising rents and to ensure the thoughtful and incremental growth of the city are refused access to information about public, city-owned land to be put up for grabs to developers. This, despite the fact that many of them have brilliant ideas about how that land could be used in a way that suits citizens’ goals, while still financially benefitting the city. In New York, we took a workshop that showed the fabulous potential for easily retrofitting suburbs into more sustainable, livable and walkable places, in a way that would currently be forbidden by most suburban zoning regulations. Thus, such visioning sessions remain mere exercises most of the time. Even when people want to self-solve, in the developed world, they’re often simply unable to do so.

On the other end of the spectrum are many cities in the developing world with the complete opposite problem—vast swaths of the population are forced to self-solve and be more responsible for their environments than they should, and given little support in the endeavor. Mumbai is the ultimate example of this. While Berliners find themselves entirely unable to self-build, say, affordable housing solutions, Mumbaikers don’t have a choice. Tracts of city land are being sold off for development at price points higher than some in Manhattan, while meanwhile nearly 60 percent of the population is literally self-building their basic necessities in the slums, providing not only their own housing, but also water, electricity, sanitation, and economic systems. Over the years, they’ve developed intricately woven systems and typologies that work remarkably well in many cases, but self-solving has its limitations. No citizen should be forced to self-supply services that should actually rely on large-scale infrastructure, as that self-solving scenario ultimately leads to poor conditions. And yet, when governments do finally step in and try to take charge, their solutions are tragically ill suited to the community’s needs, despite the community’s clear understanding of what those needs are and how they could be addressed.

There are exceptions to these issues, of course. There is the New York parks department that handed the control of the former New York Lab space over to a community group that had always dreamed of creating a community culture park there. There is the Berlin planner who took a day off his summer holiday with family to come to the Lab to discuss the politics of the aforementioned city-owned land that’s for sale. And there is the Mumbai bureaucrat who spent days pouring over entries in the Lab’s traffic junction re-design competition, and committed, in the end, to implementing the best ideas.

As exceptions, these are inspiring. But they are, generally speaking, just that: exceptions. There simply must emerge a new and better way of mediating and balancing the relationship.

Three cities, three Labs, and what feels like three lives lived in between have taught me that there is no dearth of ideas out there to make our cities better places. It’s been inspiring and humbling to see just how many there are. But we don’t just need a new way of thinking. We need a new way of turning those ideas into reality. We need new forms of genuine, meaningful engagement and new systems of empowerment, while maintaining standards that ensure it doesn’t go too far. We need to grant more access to those who deserve it, while ensuring that everybody is shouldering the responsibility they should. In many ways, cities are about power dynamics. And that, I’ve realized, more than anything, is what needs to be rethought.

. . .

Photo: UnCommonSense
© 2013 Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

  • fjr

    Christine, I have enjoyed your reporting over the course of the year. I am not familiar with your normal journalism, but did your overarching finding come as a surprise to you? Striking the balance so as to give citizens the right amount of opportunity to engage and problem-solve for the good of their communities is, indeed, a big topic and has been throughout history. Couldn’t one argue, for example, that the founding principles of the United States explicitly grappled with this very issue and that governments within it and interest groups within it continue to work on this very problem? Also, this struggle for power to implement ideas is at the root of many a political divide.

    does this mean another reporter takes over for the lab’s second year, just as different people take charge of lab programming in different cities?