21 May 2007

Albany, city on edge

“The city is that human settlement in which strangers are most likely to meet. The public geography of a city is civility institutionalized” (R. Sennett, The fall of public man, 2002, p. 264).

Let me take you across the road from the Albany campus in which my office is located. Once we cross the highway, which has an 80 kpm speed limit, we find the back of a cheaply built shopping precinct. This area is devoted to two functions: parking cars and spending money. Space for walking about freely, safe from mobile vehicles, is strictly limited. One finds what one was looking for, returns to one’s car, and leaves. Or possibly one travels to the other end of the car park to get closer to the next goods outlet. There is no place at which people could possibly linger or gather to interact freely, let alone to celebrate or commemorate anything publicly. Appropriately, the only eating-space is a fast food outlet. Admittedly, Albany has acquired its share of more fashionable cafes and bars, but these too are dominated by automobility and car-parking spaces. The diner drives in and out, and does not linger in a public square or on a sidewalk to see and be seen in public, except in so far as he or she may be seated at the table of one of these private businesses, consuming their products.

The dilemma of the loss of physical public space is also illustrated by the behaviour of the university. The main public ritual of the university is the graduation ceremony. But Albany has no street along which people in gowns may safely process, and no auditorium or hall suitable for the public to gather as witnesses and co-celebrants. Instead, we are forced to travel – naturally by car, on the motorway that bisects Albany and crosses the sewage ponds, because public transport is so inefficient and inhospitable – to distant Takapuna which still possesses a traditional shopping strip with limited traffic and which has the Bruce Mason Centre for such occasions.

In short, the new ‘edge city’ that is Albany has been designed in such a way that publicness is virtually prohibited or rendered impossible or deemed undesirable. Public lands are devoted to the rapid and hazardous transit of automobiles in which people sit and gaze from a private mobile space onto footpaths and grassy verges that are almost always devoid of people. There is nowhere for the few pedestrians to shelter or linger, and hence they appear conspicuous and vulnerable from the perspective of an automobile.

It’s hard to imagine how the social capital described so beautifully by Jane Jacobs (The death and life great American cities, 1961) could ever be fostered in such a ‘neighbourhood’, if that term even applies. How can people act as neighbours, let alone civilly as strangers, in such an environment? Hence, it is even harder to imagine how the associative practices and rituals of that realm fondly called ‘civil society’ by neo-liberal and third-way theorists could grow in any meaningful way here – and yet this environment was deliberately planned and authorized by so-called public officials and publicly elected councilors. But whatever happened to the practices and spaces of public life amidst all of their planning?


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