A city is an extraordinary cultural creation. In fact, it stands as the most profound cultural achievement of humanity. As such, it epitomizes the product of creativity and collaboration.
Renowned historian Yuval Harari posits that our capacity to collaborate flexibly and on a grand scale is what has made humans the dominant species on our planet. While social insects, such as bees and ants, cooperate in large numbers, they do so in a very rigid manner. Social mammals like chimpanzees and wolves exhibit relatively flexible cooperation but only on a small scale. Unlike these species, humans have the ability to flexibly collaborate with millions of strangers, and our ace in the hole is our imagination. We create and believe in fiction. When we invent and embrace narratives, we can act in a flexible manner with countless unknown individuals. A quintessential example is money. We collectively agree that a piece of paper holds a certain value, allowing us to exchange it for goods and services over time. Moreover, companies themselves do not have a tangible existence; we believe in them, much like we believe in nations. This belief enables us to work within companies, earn money, and adhere to the laws of our respective countries.
Our values, norms, and behaviors are deeply rooted in the narratives we embrace. Sometimes these narratives compel us to cooperate for wars, while at other times, they enable us to create magnificent cultural artifacts like cities.
When we envision a city’s future, we are essentially crafting a story. If people embrace this narrative and identify with it, they can collaborate to bring that vision to life. But the question arises: What stories are being woven for our cities? How do we intend to live in them? What dreams do we aspire to fulfill? What ideals do we hold dear? What values do we wish to see reflected in our urban landscapes?
A city is a reflection of its society. Each culture has developed its own unique way of organizing life within its territory and era. Yet, our contemporary society still grapples with the challenges of industrialization, many of which are no longer relevant. Just as in the industrial context, where everything is predictable, segmented, and functional, cities that evolved during that era became compartmentalized in their functions: living, working, recreation, and transportation, all on the scale of machines. For instance, as we stroll along pedestrian-friendly streets, we encounter facades that are short and rich in detail. However, when we traverse streets designed for automobiles and the scale of machinery, facades stretch endlessly, marked by monotony, adorned with oversized signs. These streets were constructed to accommodate the speed of cars. Massification and attempts to control nature further reshaped our cities. Rivers were straightened, channeled, or even hidden from view. Small, traditional street shops were replaced by sprawling franchises nestled within shopping malls, seemingly interchangeable with any other location.
The consequence of mass society is a tendency for individuals to feel powerless and trapped in repetitive patterns. This has led to the trivialization of human and urban values. Consequently, we have distorted the essence of what a city should represent. The term “city” implies a “place for citizens,” yet the space for true citizenship has dwindled. Critical thinking has given way to a standardized script that abhors divergence. Indeed, for a time, the script seemed to make sense in the 20th century—families adhered to prescribed formats, professions were lifelong commitments, marriages were enduring, children were raised in stable homes, and a car, house, and retirement were the ultimate goals. However, this script is no longer relevant in the 21st century. The industrial logic that underpinned the promises of happiness failed, leaving us with lifeless, socially disconnected cities.
In contemporary society, life is dynamic. Our surroundings, work, and relationships are more fluid, flexible, and unpredictable than ever before. Cities, like life, cannot be standardized and reduced to mere utilitarian functions. Urbanism, for instance, embodies a blend of nature, technology, traditions, and emotions. We must engage with what we traditionally call culture, and it is within the collection of small values that the enchantment of life and the allure of cities reside. Connecting with nature, engaging socially, savoring the arts, and cherishing both tangible and intangible heritage are indispensable for both cities and their inhabitants. In an era when the majority of the population resides in urban areas, it’s safe to say that cities constitute our habitat. When we advocate for creativity, diversity, democracy, and sustainability, we are implicitly expressing our desire to construct genuinely humane habitats. So, the question beckons: What narratives will we craft, and which stories will we collaborate to bring to life?