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Ch-Ch-Change: Lessons from View Towers (Part 2)

Gene Miller



View Towers


ACROSS THE WORLD, politics and political structure as a system of social management, as a way of expressing and apportioning individual and social power, and as a vocabulary, a framework or methodology for describing social behaviour and aspirations, is either waning or failing. It lacks the tools to respond to the complexities of a global civilization managed electronically—something that never existed before in human history—a civilization rendered geographically global by economic interactivity and the abstractions of finance and digital technology. We are, if I can resort to cliché, being ruled by money, by financial flows. Rulership, leadership, governance is passing from the various historical arrangements of political power to the power of capital and those who run its systems. People everywhere, in every nation and culture, are feeling a growing bewilderment and powerlessness, losing social meaning; and this may conceivably presage the dissolution of the nation-state, the national ‘tribe’—the current retreat from globalism, assertive nervous boundary conditions and national drum-beating attitudes notwithstanding. 

Today’s terrifying lurch to the right and the rise of the autocratic, authoritarian personality—the US under Trump, Brazil with Bolsanaro, Hungary with Orban and so on—itself implies a near-future bereft of citizenship as we currently understand it. Politicians no longer dream of changing (improving) the world, daunted by the sheer chaos of its contemporary design. All political leaders can do is cosmetically manage the thinly veiled control that financial services, tech, and energy companies exert over all of us, while offering narratives of good and evil, or of limitless possibility, that seem increasingly vapid and hollow. All of these forces and trends are producing a mounting, spreading state of unreality in social life and significantly weakening the foundations beneath a number of social institutions. Privacy, for example, has practically evaporated and given way to surveillance and commodifiable transparency; and with that, a certain kind of selfhood or autonomy is vanishing. (You can tell privacy is going when you receive so many assurances that your privacy is being respected.)

We are facing the central question of how to (and who or what intellectual regime should) manage a post-political future, and what is the shape, what are the goals, of human culture in such a future. (Structuralists might add that the arrival speed of such a future will determine if humanity can even endure such change.)

This is human and social evolution—not betterment or greater maturity, necessarily, but change. Our minds, our customs and culture, our social protocols, structures and institutions are still based in political sensibility, in ideology, but all of this, argue contemporary thinkers including sociologist and social theorist Ulrich Beck, is a remnant condition simply caught in a final moment of poise, and steadily hollowing out in favour of economic management—management by finance—and the information flows such management requires.

Ideological ideas about social management decreasingly define this emergent human condition. It’s all being washed aside, like the Age of Royalty before it. My language makes it seem as if these trends are absolutes and, of course, they’re not. They are evolutionary, messy, incomplete, approximate, and their human consequences are unknown.

But here’s the point, if I may circle back to built form, by which I really mean the scope and degree of consciousness that a community brings to built-form decisions: there really is a connection between physical form and social empowerment, that feeling of being a stakeholder in a community, of being a citizen. This stuff is abstract and resists measurement, but it isn’t imaginary. (This, by the way, is something Victoria’s regional amalgamation, bigger-is-cheaper advocates seem not to get. Bigger is just bigger.)

NIMBY, for its part, gets half, but only half—the “I want to protect and preserve what I have”—of the social equation right. What it gets wrong is that you can’t simply say “No!” Active citizenship requires that you conceive and implement affirmative (and inevitably compromissory) ways to say, “Yes!” You have to build and reinforce and re-strengthen democratic civic practice every day. You have to solve problems, through your own direct engagement, and not with a taxpayer’s “we have people” delegation sensibility. You have, in other words, to re-engage and re-earn your rights every day. The current culture trap makes active citizenship of this kind seems antiquated and almost silly, a waste of mental and physical time in the face of other social priorities. But I will tell you with certainty that social passivity is spreading, and that it is increasingly reinforced by electronic infrastructure and online culture that between them mediate ever more reality for us; and that our doom lies in that direction: a likely combination of ecological ruin and AI domination.

Let me use this vast amount of good news to provide a symbolic explanation of Victoria’s appeal. Our setting and traditional architecture—the planning and land use principles they express—convey the social message that Victoria is a place in which traditional, comprehensible human arrangements are still alive and well, where community and its social transactions and political opportunities are still valid. Visitors ooh! and ahh! when they come here, and use words like “charming” and “cute,” but they are actually conveying their own deep yearning and projecting their deep loss, or fear of loss, and with every ooh! they mean “your city is an island in a drowning world.”

Imagine yourself a visitor to Victoria: say, a walk along Dallas Road; a walk through Beacon Hill Park; then funky, relaxed, still sort-of heritage-y Downtown and intriguing, history-rich Fisgard/Chinatown; a driving meander through Rockland and then into residential Oak Bay and the Uplands. The fecundity (we live in a park), the human order, the success and human safety of it all!

Visitors may never articulate this to their hosts or even themselves, but don’t imagine for a second that they aren’t aware of it, taking it in through their skin and senses.

The world is not a relaxed place. It is terrifying; and order, safety, are—well, not illusions, exactly, so much as a set of islanded conditions floating in space and time and always subject to the roiling atmospherics of history and human nature which surround these bubbles, looking for a way in. Do such places, these bubbles, enjoy endless credit? Do they come with a forever, a guarantee? 

You know the answer. Everyone knows the answer. And while they may appear to be the gifts that keep on giving, their perpetuity should never be taken for granted. There, quite bluntly, is the case for engaged citizenship.

Owing to some combination of good luck and the accidents of history, Victoria has been given a gift never to be taken for granted, but to be renewed through vigilant attention and hard work: the promise and possibility of plenty, safety, order, culture, civility, and more.

However understandable and excusable, our failure to eradicate homelessness and associated social risk and outsider-ness; our failue to conceive innovative built forms and the appropriate policies to deliver urban density without social damage; or to achieve high (or higher) levels of urban and architectural design in public and private settings; or to deliver thorough and relaxed public safety protocols for which a police force should never be the surrogate; or to serve as a model and a beacon of ecological urban design; and to invent new public ritual around all such achievements (“Ritual,” states social critic Richard Sennett, “is an emotional unity achieved through drama.”)—in summary, to engage—are the challenges that confront our civic community. They never go away. 

View Towers still stands to remind us of the costs of inattention; and high above it is this message written against the blue sky: Do not abandon the hard work of citizenship.

Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, and writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological.


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