IT was one of the most original encounters I’d had in the indyref. The head of Glasgow City Council swept into our debate room packed with eminent worthies, at the very last minute. He was a vision in pinstripes, trailing a minor retinue behind him.
Gordon Mathieson – nowadays a mere plebeian – harrumphed a little, and then launched into what I could only call a vision of “independence for Glasgow” (as opposed, that is, to independence for Scotland).
This was August 2014, and Mathieson was not only flush from the success of the Commonwealth Games, but also the winning of a “City Deal”, worth £1.1 billion in infrastructure investment, from the Coalition government in Westminster.
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“So the future belongs to cities,” Mathieson trilled. Quite impressively, he cited the latest American academics (Bruce Ackerman and Benjamin Barber) on the importance of mayors and “city patriotism”. He rolled out the well-worn fact that 70 per cent of the world will be urban by 2050.
With a final few flourishes about the “outdated ideology of nationalism”, Mathieson then sat down and spun variations of his line, with huge self satisfaction to the end. Amid grinding discussions of currency union and European Union entry, at least this was new to my ears.
Last week’s budget from George Osborne saw the announcement of more “city deals” – essentially, infrastructure investment packages from UK central government – for Aberdeen and Inverness, with Edinburgh rumoured to be next in line. Billions will be involved, and no-one – even in the most anti-Tory strongholds – will fastidiously refuse the cheque.
I hope the Tory Chancellor doesn’t think he can buy a scrap of legitimacy for his party north of the Border (though let’s not tell him, eh?). But another slice from the pork barrel is of less interest. I’m more fascinated by the implicit faith that the very structure and dynamic of city life itself is a new force for progress.
Many policy-makers and thinkers believe that modern cities can hit a sweet spot between micro and macro. The city is contained enough, and has a clear enough identity, for people to easily feel part of it, even loyal to it. But the city also has enough scale, size and revenues to get significant stuff done, across the major policy areas of education, health, culture, infrastructure, enterprise.
The “smart city” – which captures data from all its activities, makes this available to all who need it, and aims to be super-sensitive to residents’ needs and desires – has been in vogue for a decade. It equally animates city bosses in democratic Helsinki and monarchical Dubai.
But our urbanised planet is not proceeding according to the tidy plans of city bosses in stable regions and nations. I’m writing this from a hotel room Mexico City, whose city government invited me to speak this Thursday about play, creativity and city life.
Below me, there are rivers of cars, all of them pressing their horns at once, white gloved men whistling at them furiously. Beyond that, there is literally nothing but city, to all the limits of the horizon: nearly nine million people within the strict city boundaries and 21 million in the greater municipal area. Mexico City is the biggest Spanish speaking city in the world. And it feels like it.
My hosts are a fascinating outfit called Laboratory for the City (Laboratoria Para La Ciudad). They are a department of city government created by the recently elected left-wing mayor, Miguel Ángel Mancera, and tasked to think beyond the usual parameters of urban improvement.
Before we got down to work, our hosts took us on a wander through the town. To walk down the main drag of Mexico City is to witness a brawl, if not an all-out riot, of architectural styles. The Spanish colonial era lingers on – grand, crenellated monuments and cathedrals, sitting on wide Parisian-style squares and streets (built, we were informed to accommodate one dictator’s pretentions as a boulevardier).
Our hosts told us that after the Mexican revolution, many opportunities were taken to rid the city of the Spanish legacy, and build in a way that honoured the Aztec and Mayan traditions steamrollered by the coloniser. But all you can now see, dropped in everywhere, are startlingly brutal office blocks (with the occasional tiled townhouse). This doesn’t make much sense, until you are taken to a Unesco World Heritage site behind the cathedral.
Here you find the ground-level remains of the Mayan pyramids and temples that were, quite simply, knocked down and built over by the Spanish. Under every Christian church lies the rubble of Mexican indigenous culture. And in the mad, angular styles of the post-war buildings, Mexican architects have clearly been making stylistic reference.
Then our hosts point out the unrepaired cracks in walls, the strange misalignments of the streets. Mexico City was originally an island, which expanded over its surrounding water. So this massive city rests on vast underground caves, which regularly shake the place with tremors, and sometimes full earthquakes. “There is not enough concrete in the world to fill it up,” we were told. And so buildings gradually slip, and occasionally are swallowed whole.
We walked through a grand canyon of skyscrapers, which turned out to be the main newspaper district for the whole nation. “But their journalists are afraid to report the corruption or the criminal networks that pervade Mexico, otherwise they are killed,” said one of our hosts, matter-of-factly. “We have a young generation of freelance writers who make their stands, but it is a dangerous situation for them. I sometimes fear that people will just eventually accept the criminality is our reality”.
So undergrounds everywhere, of all kinds: we’re deep in metaphor city, as William McIlvanney might say. I came here with no shortage of news information about the power of the drug cartels in Mexico, the sheer difficulty of due process and proper democracy.
But what Laboratoria Para La Ciudadare trying to do – and perhaps the sheer openness and massive sprawl of Mexico City allows room for this – is to generate different realities for its citizens, using small but powerful interventions in urban space.
Their projects are a tantalising mix of the fantastic and the practical. They leave strange, playful structures in public squares, inviting passers-by to use them as a thinking spot for what they want from their city. They create new apps that enable you to identify a true licensed cab from a fake one (which are responsible for many car-muggings). The lab recently helped shape policy around the introduction of Uber, the digital cab service, to the streets of Mexico City.
“We want to prove that imagination isn’t a luxury or a simple nice-to-have, but a requisite for a city that thrives,” they say.
To that end, the lab is mapping unused government properties in the city, and has a whole community of makers and activists ready to occupy them.
They win some, they lose some. It was poignant that our event was taking place in an extraordinary abandoned building, the Fronton Mexico, home to the national sport of frontenis, a kind of wall tennis.
Glaswegians who love the Tramway would have adored this place; all manner of Manchester and London hipsters would be pitching to integrate it into any city deal. However, our event was the last opening before the Fronton became – oh dear – a casino. The playful city, in its more toxic and pointless mode.
The whole of Scotland’s population could mill around within Mexico City’s official limits. My hosts’ issues are those of an exploding, youthful megalopolis, beset with long-standing (and sometimes unavoidable) structural problems. By comparison, any problems Scotland’s cities are doucely manageable.
Yet the networks of good souls, seeking to act with creativity and optimism, hum across the world. Cities are made of citizens, after all.
Laboratory for the City’s website is http://labcd.mx/labforthecity/.
Pat Kane is a musician and writer (www.patkane.today).