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The City: Where Hope Trumps Fear

Posted by Daniel Hoornweg on August 05, 2016

Civility is the glue that holds together the bricks and steel of cities, and needs to be constantly nurtured.
Civility is the glue that holds together the bricks and steel of cities, and needs to be constantly nurtured.

There are two important vantage points in every city – one from the rooftops and penthouses down, the other, from the ground up.

Few are afforded the expansive view from the top. Their observations are particularly important as they can let the people on the ground know where upcoming problems may arise, and what twists and turns may yield the best route.

The people in the streets have a much more immediate, gritty, contact with the city. They often communicate to those at the top through cheers and jeers, and mass movements. Anyone who’s visited enough cities knows that the view from the top is critical but it is the flavor in the streets, the smells and tastes, fears and hopes, the way a stranger greets you, that is the true measure of a city.  The movement in city streets is the most powerful force on earth: It is also the most enduring, defining our economies, environment and culture.

Walking today’s city streets, fear is easy to sense. A growing chorus argues: foreigners are taking our jobs, climate change is coming, economies are stagnant, globalization is not working, things are less fair than they used to be. Disillusionment is rampant; many urbanscapes are tinder dry.

Now is definitely not the time to be playing with matches. And yet we see this in the campaign of Donald Trump.  Last week a 10 year old boy was seen yelling “take the b*tch down” when Hillary Clinton’s name was raised at a campaign rally. The boy’s mother claimed he had a right to say what he wanted – free speech after all.

The problem is that this type of speech is horribly costly. Any Canadian engineer, especially those older male engineers, cringes when seeing this misogyny. In 1989, Marc Lépine entered the campus of Montreal’s École Polytechnique and fatally shot 14 women trying to become engineers, and wounding 10 others before killing himself (the deadliest shooting in Canada’s history).

Un-checked ten-year-old boys yelling ‘take the b*tch down’ can grow into shooters and trouble. It takes a mother and a village to nip this nonsense in the bud. Of course we get angry and feel aggrieved, and many want to lash out. But on our streets and campuses, the first priority is civility, not just because it’s quaint and good manners, but also because it’s fundamental to our economies and way of life. Adults and leaders need to provide an example and aggressively watch for actions that threaten our communities. Civility is the glue that holds together the bricks and steel of cities, and needs to be constantly nurtured.

When the smoke clears of Donald Trump’s campaign, the Brexit vote, Marine Le Pen’s plans for France, and Rob Ford’s histrionics – those campaigns built on fear and separation, walls and exclusions, when they cross the line of civility, we all lose.

Cities are where hope is built. Cities and civilization are humanity’s great paradox. Living together enables us to grow wealthy and healthier, live longer, pursue dreams, and have a more fulsome life. But living together is also stressful, requiring civility, constant give and take, and most important, trust and respect. Our leaders must remind everyone, every day, of the need to get along. In the city, hope always trumps fear.

Filed under: Sustainability 101