Recreating a modern-day Athens

The more I delve into the writings of urban planners, economists, and historians, the more I see the common threads of a universal truth. Human progress and urbanisation go hand in hand. From ancient Egypt to Renaissance Florence to modern-day Tokyo, vibrant cities, not the rural countryside or suburban cul-de-sac, are at the heart of flourishing civilisation.

It is quite obvious too when one thinks about it. City life forces us to live outside of our comfort zone in many ways. We must share space rather intimately, and therefore learn to live and cooperate with people with different ways of thinking, and from varying religious, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. This necessity to co-operate or risk chaos continues to be a driver of human innovation and progress. The city is in many ways an incubator that can facilitate the development of a society’s collective intellectual capacity.

Reading about the importance of cities throughout history is one thing, but it is quite another to understand it through lived experiences. It has been six years since I returned to Trinidad. As is the case with many students returning from abroad, there is a continuous desire to be an active participant in the nation’s progress.

However, the ever-lurking desire to migrate still creeps in: to be in a place where my skills will be utilised and appreciated and that would allow me to participate in rational national dialogue about important societal issues. I still struggle to find that fulfilment here.

Yet there are many intelligent individuals still living in this country, and many groups of people who are having progressive discussions about how to take this country forward. I was reminded of this over the past three months after three distinct experiences.

The first was a conversation with the mother of a friend from secondary school, on the verandah of a local hotel. She was interested in hosting a forum where people could discuss the issues plaguing Port of Spain and develop solutions. What came out of that conversation was a realisation by both of us, planner and non-planner, that we cannot hope to move forward as a nation with our major city in decline.

The second was an after-work gathering at the office of an architecture firm. As the wine and conversation flowed, one burning question raised by a local fashion designer plagued me long after. She pondered, how does a nation go from developing to developed-nation status? What is the catalysing factor? Thoughts began to form in my mind.

The third was an event focused on the issue of toxic masculinity, in the basement of an art gallery. The discussion, involving a panel of psychologists and lecturers from the University of the West Indies, was refreshing and really captured the lived experiences of boys in the Caribbean. Despite this, frustration set in. Here I was experiencing a wonderfully progressive discussion, but thinking: what happens after the conversation is done?

Our problem, I proffer, is not that we lack people with progressive ideas. The culprit is the way that we have planned and designed communities. Discussions increasingly occur in physical and metaphorical silos. We lack functional public spaces where the unifying forces of community life that would naturally cause disparate people to interact with each other are missing. There is a reason why that public space in front of the Red House was referred to as the University of Woodford Square and the People’s Parliament, not coincidentally, at times when the residential population of Port of Spain was far greater than it is today.

Modern urban planning and design is the culprit. It was assumed that all people needed was housing with lots of space, air, light, and green open spaces. Hence the thrust towards decentralisation. The family unit was to fulfil people’s need for social interaction. The role of public spaces, such as streets, as places where communal social bonds are formed, was lost. A street is now only seen as infrastructure.

To address the lack of progress that we complain about daily, we need to fight for a reinvigorated capital city designed to serve as the intellectual centre and incubator and heart of the nation, our modern-day Athens, as it were. For without it we will increasingly indulge in racism, xenophobia, bigotry, and a blind adherence to ancestral ideologies – all natural outcomes of the stagnation of intellectual development.

As the planner Jane Jacobs surmised, “Whenever and wherever societies have flourished and prospered rather than stagnated and decayed, creative and workable cities have been at the core of the phenomenon. Decaying cities, declining economies, and mounting social troubles travel together. The combination is not coincidental.”

* Ryan's column was first published in Newsday's Business Day on November 29, 2018.


"Recreating a modern-day Athens"

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