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Cities in the Future of Democracy

In the midst of a two-party dominated and heavily-scripted federal election campaign, I spoke with the widely-respected and independently-minded Senator Scott Ludlam (Greens, Western Australia) about his life-long interest in urban thinking and city life as a laboratory of new forms of democracy.

In the stormy history of democracy, cities have played a pivotal role as sites of public assembly, sanctuaries for the persecuted, shapers of political language and objects of wonder. Think of the way Babylon, Byblos, Athens and other city states of the ancient world gave birth to the ideal of self-governing citizens gathered as equals in assemblies. Then spare a moment’s thought for the towns of medieval and early modern Europe, hemmed in from all sides, embattled places that hatched ideals and practices that still stand by our sides: civility, civil societies, citizenship and self-government through elected representatives. Press freedom was born of urban struggles, in towns like Bruges, Nuremberg and Amsterdam. So was republican resistance to absolute monarchy and popish government. And just over a century ago, many cities in many settings experimented with ‘gas-and-water socialism’: the establishment of public baths, museums, libraries, music halls, parks and publicly-funded services, including horse-drawn trams, filtered water, sewerage disposal and (as Henry George famously summarised the vision in Progress and Poverty) lighting systems for roads ‘lined with fruit trees’.

New York City Anna Skarpelis

Might cities today be functioning in similar ways, as drivers of bold new political ideals and practices uniquely suited to the 21st century? Do cities hold the key to our democratic future? Scott Ludlum is convinced they do. A definite cut above most other politicians down under, Ludlum has city life and urban thinking hard-wired into his political genes. He’s highly knowledgeable on the subject. Politically wise for his young age (he’s 43) and now campaigning for re-election, he tells me during our recent breakfast in Sydney that cities are becoming political laboratories. ‘Much has been said and written about sustainable cities in recent times’, he says. ‘There’s a wild flowering of creative theory and practice going on.’ We’re now on the cusp of an urban tipping point. ‘The future is here’, he adds, borrowing words from William Gibson. ‘It’s just not widely distributed yet.’

Scott Ludlum’s no utopian; he’s better described as an imaginative realist. That senatorial quality radiates across the table as we talk through the upsides and downsides of present-day city living. We begin with the grim. Cities often mean empty pockets and daily exhaustion amidst (as in London) ‘jungles of surveillance cameras’. Homelessness is an urban scandal. Cities should be human nests, says Ludlum, not prisons that consign people who live on the margins to misery and shame, or forcible removal. He objects to popular stereotypes of the homeless as lazy, smelly modern-day untouchables who’ve nobody but themselves to blame. ‘On any given night in Australia’, he points out, ‘more than 105,000 people find themselves homeless. That’s 1 in every 200 people. Over a quarter are children under the age of 18. Most are victims of domestic violence.’

Detroit 2012 Steve D. Hammond/flickr
Whole cities are meanwhile falling apart. ‘Detroit stands as a dark symbol of what happens when an industrial city is captured by the wealthy. Its fabric’s been torn. Inequality is now gnawing at its heart. Slums, desperation, collapsing public infrastructure amidst concentrated private wealth are the result.’ Though not shy of market solutions, the business-led privatisation of city life clearly bothers Ludlum. Money is a medium of city life, but it shouldn’t lord over the inhabitants of cities. Just as the citizens of Istanbul recently rose up against their government and developer friends to defend Gezi Park, he says, so it’s important for citizens everywhere to resist the blind privatisation of public places.

Bread and jam and tea on the table, Ludlum turns to everybody’s favourite subject: cars. I discover he’s not one for talk of ‘autogedden’ (Will Self). The automobile is good for long-distance personal trips. And he admits that among green-minded citizens and Green activists there’s plenty of support for a wholesale planned shift towards electric cars. Yet the trouble with private automobiles, he explains, is their weird spatial effects. They do more than clog cities. They produce living vacuums, what Ludlum calls nowhere places. ‘Look at what happened after 1945. Cheap anywhere-to-anywhere transport spawned an unstoppable proliferation of places that feel like nowhere, a soulless topography of suburban sprawl-mart development.’ I press him about exceptions, but he stands firm. ‘Across the United States, the broad pattern was that tram and bus transit alternatives made suddenly quaint by saturation automobile advertising were purchased then shut down by oil companies. In Australia, the culprit was calculated neglect everywhere except Melbourne, which thankfully has the largest tram network in the world.’

Senator Scott Ludlum, from his Perth office Felicity Ruby
Scott Ludlum is sure that knocking automobiles off the top perch of the planning hierarchy would ‘reduce obesity and improve public health, because for most people public transport trips start with a cycle, or a walk.’ It would help as well the growth of ‘urban village archipelagos’. He has in mind networked cities comprising ‘medium and high density human-scale settlements linked together by fast and frequent public transport.’ A similar case for reintegrating suburbs into cities is made by David Rusk’s Cities without Suburbs. But don’t vested interests and path-dependent bureaucracies stand in the way of this vision, I reply? ‘But that doesn’t make them right’, he answers. ‘The alternative is a kind of auto-mobility that stretches cities into unsustainable shapes.’ Cars make for pseudo-cities. Perth is an example, he says. ‘It’s one of the largest cities in the world by land size. It’s the fastest-growing city in Australia, and by 2050, on current projections, it will be a coast-hugging city over 200 kilometres long.’ In the absence of alternatives, Ludlum fears it may well become what some geographers (Edward Soja is the most famous) dub an ‘exopolis’, a city without centres, a geometrically fragmented, discontinuous, car-dependent simulacrum of city life.

Sprawl, privatisation, soulless nowhere places, empty pockets, homelessness: such dark sides of the urban moon are downplayed in the much-discussed recent book by Leo Hollis, Cities are Good for You. Still the Senator broadly agrees with its brave attempt to reclaim the city from the gripes and grumbles of sceptics, naysayers and doomsday merchants. Here Ludlum shows a bottom of good sense. He’s a smart and lucid urbanist with a deft feel for the way city life can be empowering. Things done closer to home tend to be more meaningful, he tells me. Cities like Sydney and New York are vital crucibles of pluralism, cultivators of people’s acceptance of differences, their common sense of being in it together with others, their need for give-and-take civility. When they function well, they’re ‘diverse, organic, problem-solving’ places (he quotes the famous words of Jane Jacobs). Impressed by the southern Spanish city of Seville (‘a fine-grained, pedestrian-friendly, solar-powered city’), he’s particularly enamoured of Tokyo. It’s the centrepiece of a recent short film he shot and directed. ‘Tokyo’s fun, packed with energy that comes from deliberate compaction. Its public transport system resembles a ballet; it’s the best I’ve ever used. It’s a city with many pockets of deep memory, some of them living reminders of human triumph over firebombing, nuclear weapons and nuclear melt-downs.’

The experience of people rubbing shoulders with others in urban settings is important for another reason. The professor quotes Hannah Arendt on the vital importance of public space in citizens’ lives. He’s doesn’t flinch. ‘The public experience of face-to-face mixing and mingling of people reminds them of their diversity and commonality, as equals.’ Shared public space of course requires people to nurture their sense of history. City folk need to feel anchored, with their toes firmly on the ground. Heritage matters. Cities must be custodians of collective memory. ‘Given my particular roots, London does that for me as a city’, he tells me. ‘I know no other city where I can feel and appreciate the multiple deep layers of the past.’

Don’t cities require great buildings, wonderful physical places, I ask. ‘Yes, cities thrive on spaces of aesthetic beauty.’ He lays into Le Corbusier then lists his favourite designs. His father was a draftsman, and Ludlum himself was trained as a graphic designer, so he knows what he’s talking about. He lists three favourite urban icons: London’s Natural History Museum; Parliament House in Canberra (‘cleverly designed, functional, full of light and natural materials’); and the 50-storey ‘graceful woven basket’ Cocoon building in Tokyo.

Cocoon building in Shinjuku, Tokyo Simon Po/flickr

The clock’s ticking, a federal election campaign is on our heads, so in the remaining time we turn to tackling the toughest, most stretching question of all: how are cities best governed? 21st-century cities are simultaneously blighted and blessed with opportunities, so how can their potential be activated? Are they optimally run by ‘smart power’ urban planners, or through outsourced decisions to private stakeholders, or perhaps by efforts to recapture the spirit of Greek assembly democracy, I ask?

The political question prods Ludlum, as if with a sharp-pointed stick. He says he’s unimpressed with plans by the New South Wales government to consolidate Sydney’s local governments into Auckland-style mega-councils. He tells me he supported the move to put recognition and direct funding of local government to a constitutional referendum, but that now seems a lost cause. When I press Ludlum to explain who would pay for the re-design of cities he has very interesting things to say about the need to ‘bring the taxed back into tax decisions’, so that in between elections citizens and their representatives are more directly involved in participatory budgeting, in choices between ‘nuclear submarines and affordable housing’.

Yet despite his fondness for ‘deliberative democracy’ and decentralisation, for ‘citizens’ juries, participatory budgeting, free Wi-Fi hotspots, public chessboards and ping-pong tables for kids’, Ludlum says he’s no nostalgic for going back to the Greeks. 21st-century cities are different. They’re highly complex entities sitting within fragile ecosystems, and that’s why high-quality, citizen-based planning and design really matter. Too often, so-called urban administration is what he calls, with a wry smile, ‘planned intelligence abatement’. It overlooks the elementary point that ‘too much planning kills cities’. Good planning enables people to find their own use for public spaces. I quote Daniel Libeskind: ‘Just as the test of a democracy is how it treats its minorities, the test of the future city will be how it cherishes well-being and imagination.’

The most absorbing moment of our breakfast conversation is about to come. Ludlum targets the growing inter-dependence of cities, on a regional and global scale. Planet Earth is becoming a vast urban matrix, he points out. Studies show that by 2025 there will be around 37 cities with at least 10 million residents; and by 2050, says a United Nations report, 75 percent of the world’s population will live in interconnected cities. ‘Perth is now a global city, the command and control centre of an export-led economy. Decisions in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo one day affect what happens in Perth the next.’

The remark prompts me to ask Ludlum whether prevailing views of city ‘autonomy’ and ‘self-government’ need overhauling. Doesn’t the expanding connectivity of cities push us towards a new understanding of democracy? Look at the Climate Leadership Group (C40) initiative, a network of the world’s megacities committed to a post-carbon energy regime. Or consider the European alliance called the Aalborg Charter, which speaks of the need for citizens and representatives in any given city to think sustainably about ‘people in other parts of the world’, and ‘of future generations’. Aren’t these in effect new practical visions of enfranchising a new constituency (the unborn) and new long-distance methods of deciding things collectively? Might they resemble a chrysalis capable of hatching the butterfly of larger-scale, future tense democracy – despite the fact that we’ve no good account of what this 21st-century type of democracy mindful of the future might mean in practice? Ludlum thinks so. ‘The United Nations Agenda 21 was an example of a global initiative to open up democratic spaces for local innovation. Another example is the amalgamation and self-organisation of local governments to handle such matters as garbage collection and recycling. Such new forms of bio-regional governance are examples of ‘fractal complexity’ in action, the recognition of self-similarity across scale. They point to a democratic world beyond Washminster politics.’

BHP Tower, Perth Matt Austen/flickr

The young Senator prepares to dash, to face the television studio cameras, so in our last few minutes together I ask him to reflect on whether his vision of intelligent democratic cities spells doom for the old Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson nationalist imagery of Australia as a highly urbanised society set apart from its mountain ranges and sweeping plains, marsupials thumping through wattles, bare-bellied ewes and old shearers with beers in bony hands. Hasn’t Australia, always among the most urbanised countries, long been dominated by back-‘o-Bourke rural fantasies? Isn’t it still so?

Ludlum’s answer catches me by surprise. ‘That imaginary separation of city and country has become unsustainable. Today’s cities perch people far off the ground. They block sight of the stars. So we’re faced with a completely different task: re-embedding our cities into our biosphere through such innovations as climate smart precincts, bicycle lanes, farmers’ markets, zero-carbon affordable housing, solar farms and neighbourhood centres linked together by efficient transport infrastructure and networks of parks and bio-diversity areas. We need to bring the bush back into city life, not romanticise it’, he adds. ‘The whole point is to turn our cities into closed-loop communities mindful of their own delicate metabolism.’

And with those imaginative words, Senator Ludlum politely shakes hands, smiles and says a quiet goodbye, to return to the real and pressing political business of winning an election.

This profile first appeared on ABC’s The Drum.