Slow cities

‘Frequently, in a journey of the soul, the most precious moments  are the mistakes.  They have brought you to a place you otherwise have always avoided.’*
(John O’Donohue.)

In her very enjoyable history of walking Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit, when moving from the open spaces of rural walking to the streets of urban walking, notices:

‘Streets are the spaces left between buildings.  A house alone is an island surrounded by a sea of open space, and the villages that preceded cities were no more than archipelagos in the same sea.  But as more and more buildings arose, they became a continent, the remaining open space no longer like a sea but like rivers, canals an streams running between the land masses.’**

This has demanded that we find new ways of living.  Ways we are still figuring out:

‘People no longer lived anyhow in the open sea of rural space but travelled up and down the streets, and just as narrowing waterway increases flow an speed, so turning open space into the spillways of streets directs and intensifies the flood of walkers.’**

All of human life seems to be witnessed and experienced in a more intense way in cities.  Perhaps this is also where we can find our hope because here there are lots of mistakes and accidents in cities.

Lauren Elkin is mesmerised by cities.  She confesses of her experience of living in New York:

‘I gaped at the gargantuan ornate apartment buildings, the wide boulevards, Zabar’s, H&H Bagels, the Hungarian Pastry Shop with its sticky glazed croissants, the men selling books on folding tables on Broadway.  To sit in a restaurant on Broadway with the world walking by and the cars and taxis and the noise was like finally being let in to the centre of the universe, after peering in at it for so long.’^

When many of our cities began to fill in space in this way, they were quite different to how they are today, as Solnit notes for us:

‘All the furniture and codes that give modern streets their orderliness – raised [pavements], streetlights, street names, building numbers, drains, traffic rules, and traffic signals – are relatively recent innovations.’**

The experience of cities for many, though, is quite different to how Elkin experienced New York.  Life’s needs are intensified too.  Whilst there are movements to get people from the cities into the countryside, to appreciate the natural world, movements that make it possible for people to feel all their city is theirs need to happen too.

But Elkin reminds me of how I felt when I arrived in Edinburgh.  I would walk around the streets and open spaces in what became a long Summer (I particularly remember an evening in Holyrood Park) pinching myself to see if I was really there.  But I also remember that I did not choose to come here, I followed my work.  And I loved living in the industrial town of Oldham on the edge of Manchester – a city without the long history of Edinburgh – and I wanted to stay there but couldn’t.  Before Oldham, there was the industrial town of Blackburn, a place I also wanted to stay but couldn’t.

Edinburgh, though, would teach me about my mistakes in a way other places hadn’t, would make it possible to change more than anywhere else.  This is why it’s become so special to me.  But it’s not the specialness of the city but how I walk in the city.  Elkin believes that the cities are finding hope – I think she is right, and an city can be a place of hope.  We have not finished with our cities and they are not finished with us.  :

‘But it is the practice of the city that we have the best chance of making a just world.  Freedom of movement is an intrinsic part of that.

Let me walk.  Let me go at my own pace. Let me feel life as it moves through me an around me.

[…]

The city turns you on, gets you going, moving, thinking, wanting, engaging.  The city is life itself.’^

There seems to be a growing “slow cities” movement, part of the slow movement, recognised here by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber in their considering of the slow university:

‘Knowing that there is a global movement for slowing down can fuel us. […] Slowing down is about asserting the importance of contemplation, connectedness, fruition, and complexity.’^^

Here this slowness is expressed in a Wander Society leaflet:

“Society wants us to live a planned existence, following paths that have been travelled by others.  Tried and true.  The known, the expected, the controlled, the safe.  The path of the wanderer is not this.  The path of the wanderer is an experiment with the unknown.  To be idle.  To play.  To daydream.”*^

We may not be able to build new streets and alleyways but we can walk them differently, with new eyes and with new people.  Erwin McManus shares something that can remind us of how the best cities are those exploring new relationships when he asks:

‘Who are the people you have bound your life to?  Who are the people in your life to whom you have declared, “I am with you”?’^*

My challenge to self is to head into the city now and notice something happening between people I would have missed if I was going too fast.

(*From John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara.)
(**From Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust.)
(^From Lauren Elkin’s Flaneuse.)
(^^From Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber’s The Slow Professor.)
(*^From Keri Smith’s The Wander Society.)
(^*From Erwin McManus’ The Last Arrow.)

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4 thoughts on “Slow cities

    • Thank you for the encouraging words and the link to the article. As you say, it is about making the time larger between noticing something or something happening to us and how we respond. Instead of reacting, we are becoming more responsive, and eventually, we can become more of an initiator – making things happen.

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