Lessons from a child: thinking about thinking — about cities — and the design cities need: the business of community

If we define ourselves by our collective intentions, then we can define our cities by our collective selves.

One of the defining qualities of a designer is not just thinking about things — we all do that to some degree — but constantly thinking about the way we think. So it was of great surprise to me and the source of an immense feeling of pride to have one of my young daughters help me in this intriguing and at times burdensome tendency.

My daughter had been studying philosophy at school. She told me recently, at the tender age of 6, that she was learning about ‘metacognition’. I asked her what it was and she said “its thinking about thinking”, in that joyful, precise way most kids that age would say something that was of great importance to them, like in proudly telling which of their toys is their favourite or in pointing out their very own bedroom but, in this case, the answer was delivered with an extra level of excitement that would only come with the realisation knowing about the term and its meaning is less common for a child of that age than having one’s own toy or bedroom.

But if thinking about the way we think is a defining aspect of design, isn’t the city and its making constantly under critical review? That depends, of course, on whether you believe cities are designed. And that depends on what you term city, because I would argue that the city that is generally considered to be “designed” is not the core of our collective existence, and for this same reason, what is couched as design falls short of being design.

As I have outlined in the About section of this site and in a previous post, if the city is understood as citizens and their various activities of exchange, then the city as form (infrastructure, buildings and public space) could be understood to be the material evidence of its citizens. Design of cities would, therefore, address citizens — who they are, what they seek — and devise exchange activities that deliver on their expectations, rather than addressing the outputs (form) of some types of exchange which are not enquired into and are taken for granted (growth, urban expansion, infrastructure provision, and the normalisation of luxury lifestyles, for example).

How often do we discuss cities in terms of citizen needs, values and preferences? The language of time, convenience, sharing, affordability, accessibility and choice is drowned by the descriptive language of height, density, activity centres, facilities, growth and growth boundary. And how often do the designs produced for cities address and enable preferred ways of life? The image, master plan, singular-issue strategy and action plan for the city have predominance over governance strategies — partnerships that could create the right conditions for initiatives that respond directly to the expectations of community and are able to deliver on collective wealth.

In essence, could we prioritise the business of community (who it is, what it stands for, what it is to produce to sustain itself and share its wealth), over the businesses we think might make a “community” (government services, and the property development led retail, housing and commercial industries that drive our developments)? Could businesses be interested and play a vital part in the business of community? Could the sustainability of community (the economic, social and ecological networks vital to building resilience) be considered as important as building “sustainable” technologies (green roofs, green buses and green walls)?

The real challenge and opportunity in the design of our cities is to make community the business proposition.

It may sound overly complex, this thinking about the way we (currently) think; but it doesn’t have to be so hard: the irony is, to understand the city as citizens and their communities of exchange, and to undertake design that begins with citizens and devises investment strategies to deliver on their expectations is a lot more straightforward than the way the city is currently viewed and made. It may just take a little honesty, selflessness and imagination — as a child well knows.

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