Are we there yet?

(this piece first appeared in The Herald on 24 December 2014)
Perhaps as you read this you have reached your holiday destination? You have sped along the freeways or braved the airport terminal. You are where you want to be. Because, it is at this time of the year when many of us try to be somewhere else. We try to be where we are not normally. At the first chance we get, when we are released by our bosses for a few days or when we get a little extra cash, we escape, we run away, we go somewhere else. “Why is this?”, I asked my wife as we sipped Australian wine and chomped Paraguayan peanuts on our air Malaysia flight to Buenos Aires some time back. Can it be that the physical and spatial reality that we have built for ourselves is so intolerable that the only thing that keeps us there is that we don’t have enough time or money to leave it behind? No, this can surely not be the case. But even when we look a little closer, even at those times  of the year when we are not on holiday, still we find this intense drive to be in a different place. Driven by the idea that the different place is better. Our cities are living testimony to this obsession. Streets, roads, highways, overpasses, underpasses, airports, railway stations, IPTS lanes parking areas all built at huge expense and at massive cost to the environment to be sure that we can get as quickly as we can from where we are now to where we are not. Stopping along the way, is controlled, frowned upon or downright illegal depending where you are trying to get to. We see it also in the things we purchase and consume. It is not good enough to have ordinary butter, it must be Irish butter, our olive oil comes from Argentina, Portugal or Greece, our cars from Korea and our phones form China.  The other day I bought spring onions imported from Kenya. I kid you not…Spring Onions! Are we discontented? Are we displeased with this place, our place and the things that come from our place? No, I don’t think so at all. But I do think, as individuals, we are weak, we are without centre, we are easily manipulated and easily swayed by institutions and corporations that will make money for themselves in exchange for our freedom and for our time.
How much of our tax money is used to fund roads, bridges, harbours and runways? How much of our monthly salary goes to paying for cars, petrol and repairs. How many bright minds in our economy go to working in the motor industry, petrol industry, tyre fitment centres, vehicle finance and vehicle insurance? All collaborating and conspiring to build the machines and the system that make it efficient and effortless to get you to be somewhere else.  Imagine the extra cash we would have if we did not need to pay for all of this year in and year out. We are fortunate of course because we don’t have to imagine car free towns and cities, we can actually visit them and observe for ourselves (or rather just Google them and save the cost of the flight ticket). There are many, many examples of kind and caring societies that have managing the car and taking back the city’s streets. Quebec, Venice, Curitiba and Stone Town are beautiful examples of how this can be done in such a way that these places become a delight for residents and visitors.  We don’t have to imagine cities that grow their own food we only need to look to the Urban Agriculture of Mumbai, New York and especially Havana where 90% of the city’s fresh produce come from local urban farms and gardens and where more than 200,000 Cubans work urban agriculture sector. We don’t have to imagine a city that provides more than 90% of its energy needs from renewable resources, we need only to look to Reykyavik in Iceland.
 But my appeal is not only that we allow ourselves to imagine a city with fewer cars, less pollution  and less imports,  but also that we begin to imaging a city that we are happy to live in, happy to work in and happy to spend time in. My appeal is that we begin to imagine a city that attempts not to dream up new products that we can manufacture and ship across the ocean, but rather cities that make responsible use of their land, their water their sunlight and forests to feed themselves, cloth themselves and house themselves.  Perhaps this requires a mind-set though in which we begin to understand that we are not casual observers of the cities and towns we live in, but rather that we are active participants, actively creating the shape and form of our cities by the way in which we allow our lives to play out in them and by the way in which we choose to spend our money in them. Or will we remain trapped in the idea that the solution will come from somewhere else, that our clothing will come from China, that our electricity from Eskom in Mpumalanga, our food by refrigerated truck from Cape Town and that the only way we could navigate our city is cars running on Saudi fuel.
But wait, I can’t be chatting for too long, I have got to get back to the all-important task of basting my Brazilian Christmas Turkey.

Author: Tim Hewitt-Coleman

The World can be a better place.... But how? Taking the debate beyond the political, beyond the theoretical into the real economy, into the physical and spatial dimension where cities, landscapes and livelihoods take form.

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