Category Archives: Vancouver

Liveability and the Right to the City

 for the second year running, Australia’s political capital was named the best city in the world by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), a result that made northern hemisphere observers wonder if, down under, they were looking at the rankings upside down.

Canberra is a deathly place. It is a city conceived as a monument to the roundabout and the retail park, a bleak and relentless landscape of axial boulevards and manicured verges, dotted with puffed-up state buildings and gigantic shopping sheds.  (The Guardian 12 Dec. 2014)

“Liveability” and “liveable cities” do not have anything to do with the right the city, Lefebvre’s vision of cities as oeuvres or collective “works of art”.  The Guardian complains “The Economist Intelligence Unit puts Melbourne in first place, followed by Vienna, Vancouver, Toronto, Adelaide and Calgary. There is never any mention, on any list, of London or New York, Paris or Hong Kong. There are no liveable cities where you might actually want to live. ”  This is a common complaint, for liveability means public spaces that are in practice new, untroubled by historical memory, and often-times actually private property “lawns” and fountains in front of office towers, “lobbies without walls” as Oliver Wainwright sums up.

“Liveability” is a dream of an urban communion in the consumption of public spaces as a collective good.  Public sidewalks are privatised as outdoor cafe spaces to enhance the spectacle of enjoyment.  But the resulting urban environments are not platforms for self-expression, collective memory or political voices.  Contra apostles of “new urbanism”, bodies do not assemble here but pass through in a pedestrian transit vision of public space and social order or they pay to stay.   The architects protest that they are powerless, just following orders of capitalist owners.  But this total vision suits the paternal order that sets these bodies in motion, atomised and probably texting, at the feet of monumental buildings.  In Wainwright’s article, Gehl is quoted saying “It’s good for democracy if people can meet each other on the street.”  But people are discouraged from any collective encounter in these streets.  In this sense, is “liveability” totalitarian?

Totalitarian: Lacking rights to redeveloped urban spaces, has there not been a new enclosure of the urban commons?  Totalitarian: what sets limits or counterbalances a version of liveability that privileges a professional class of well-heeled “Bobos” that are “bohemian” only in their own eyes?  As consumption goes online and is thus increasingly individualised or enclosed in the “telephone booth-sociability” of online tweets and comments, these unpublic spaces become a key ritual site of belonging for inhabitants of the cities of OECD.  It confers on some the rights to these spaces and excludes others that are not “properly” active economically, bodies that do not comply, are disabled or disordered.

As consumption goes online and is thus increasingly individualised or enclosed in the “telephone booth-sociability” of online tweets and comments, these unpublic spaces become a key ritual site of belonging for inhabitants of the cities of OECD.  However, Occupy and the revolutions of the second decade of this century demonstrate that it is in the moments of political ferment when these spaces are occupied by people that there is a self-recognition by the public as a public and as citizens.

How about a liveability index based on the total number of park benches — ideally “sleepable” benches — the absence of loitering rules, and the number of public events and demonstrations held annually?

-Rob Shields, University of Alberta