What makes a city great?

2011-05-28 11:10

The wonderful thing about a post-election period is not so much the merciful absence of political mudslinging, but rather the empowered communities that can now look their ward councillor in the eye and say: “You got my vote, now make good on your promises.”

 The local government ­elections threw shoddy service delivery into the spotlight – from the shameful open toilets in informal settlements to ­potholes and power outages in the urban centres.

As we all feel the burden of increasing rates and taxes, and price hikes in electricity, petrol and toll roads, the question of how our tax money is being spent becomes one that we ask frequently.

The questions that surfaced in my mind throughout the ­election was how service ­delivery affects the livability of a city, what makes a city great, and what draws people to choose to live in a particular city. Johannesburg’s claim of being “a world-class African city” has never sat well with me.

It has always smacked ­somewhat of a backhanded compliment.

Why can we only measure ourselves against the rest of Africa? Because it’s ­easier?

Why can’t we simply be a “world-class city”?

If we are honest with ourselves, it’s not world class.

Not yet. However, I do love living in Johannesburg and wouldn’t call any other place my home.

I love the fact that I live in the largest man-made forest in the world, as much as I love the fact that it is like living in the Wild West.

The highs and the lows are what give this jaded showgirl her unique charm.

That, and the throngs of pioneers (from rural towns as well as the rest of the world) who arrive here hoping to find their fortune in the City of Gold.

Many outsiders can’t understand what makes residents love Jozi with such passion. It’s usually a love-hate ­relationship, but passionate all the same.

A recent article in the FT Weekend put this love-hate ­relationship into perspective.

The article questioned why the world’s most “livable” cities were not necessarily the most lovable cities.

Each year, various publications (Monocle magazine being one of the most respected) release lists of the most desirable cities in the world to live in.

The cities you most expect to make the top of the list – New York, London, Paris – seldom do, while the cities you would never think of as alluring – ­Zurich, Copenhagen, Munich – are always in the top five.

Writer Edwin Heathcote points out that while these cities ticked all the boxes used to measure livability, they were as exciting as living with a Stepford wife.

One of the main factors for this blandness was, interestingly enough, the absence of a ­disparity between the rich and the poor.

While theoretically socially ­desirable, these communities lack vibrancy and dynamism ­because, he adds, “if everybody is where they want to be, no one is going anywhere”.

Cities evolve in cycles.

When parts of the city decline, the ­affluent move on and poor or minority groups tend to move in.

These are a city’s true ­pioneers.

Think of the Chinatowns or Little Ethiopias that emerge from a city’s underbelly. This in turn attracts a ­bohemian or trendy crowd, which eventually leads back to ­gentrification.

In a worst-case scenario, where there is no entrepreneurship, an area turns to a slum.

But even then the tide eventually turns and neighbourhoods are reinvented – like the revival of Johannesburg’s inner city.

It is the influx of new ­minorities, the displacement of the established and the everyday urban struggle that give a city its colour, energy and diversity.

South Africa has the dubious honour of having the most ­unequal society in the world, and it is this extreme that makes a city like Johannesburg the adrenaline-fuelled melting pot it is – addictive for many of its residents.

However, one indicator that completely destroys the ratings of a city – no matter how ­beautiful or energetic – is ­violence, and extreme inequality breeds violence.

So clearly our extreme is not ideal, but as Descartes wrote: “A great city should be an ­inventory of the possible.”

And we have an impressive ­inventory.

Many South Africans would like our cities to resemble places such as Singapore or Geneva, but somehow they could never ­reflect the vibrancy of our Rainbow Nation.

As the old saying goes: “Be careful what you wish for.”

» Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. Visit www.fluxtrends.com 830 words

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