Terror and the City

Terror and the City

In this article we will not speak about the Human Ecosystems.

We will talk about cities, about how cities experience terror, and about public space.

The events of November 13th 2015 in Paris call for a wide reflection on this subject.

We will not talk about Islam, Christianity or other religions. We will not talk about terrorists, and the violence and sadness of human deaths and, on the other hand, about the conditions of human life which bring people, just like you and me, to kill, and to kill themselves, and to bring terror in cities of the world. This is not the point. Even more: from our point of view, this point is misleading in more than one way.

What we will talk about is how to live better lives in cities among human beings, regardless of our beliefs, our political orientations, our visions on the world.

I am Salvatore Iaconesi. I am the CEO of Human Ecosystems Ltd.

Yesterday we were walking around the city of Milan. We were with a dear friend of ours, Lucio Fumagalli, the head of BAICR, an important agency and institute for education and social innovation. We had just completed a session for the Master for Polis Making in Como, at the Politecnico di Milano.

While we were walking around the city, we did not know what was happening in Paris.

Yet we were talking about the things we were seeing in the city. Things which are very relevant for what we would have discovered only the day after, in the morining, while having breakfast and watching the news channels. We were talking about integration, inclusion and the possibility to form real communities in the neighbourhoods of our cities.

The San Siro neighbourhood in Milan is a very typical neighbourhood. There is a lot of immigration there, just as in many other cities in the world.

The neighbourhood has learned how to cope with new types of faces, with skin coulours which are slightly darker or lighter or more yellow or brownish than the ones it was used to even just a few years ago. There is a Chinese pizza maker who has learned to make Tuscan style pizza better than most, with a soft crust and wonderful toppings. There are people of various cultures and origins strolling around the neighbourhood, and nobody pays much attention. There are new smells in the air, of food, and life and culture. The childrens’ classrooms have changed with different colours and languages. There are places which offer cous-cous and lasagne, in the same menu. There are places in the same neighbourhood in which you can pray different gods. There are places in which you can learn martial arts from Japan, China, Israel, Egypt and also ones with arrows and weapons from various regions of the Middle East, taught by the people from those places.

All this variety has become a normal part of the landscape of the neighbourhood.

Yet, when you walk down its streets, you never see people from different cultures mixing. This fact is changing with the younger generations, for the kids who are in the same classroom, for example. But to see people from Bangladesh, Syria, Tunisia, Italy, Turkey, China and others walk together, marry, talk together at a bar or doing something else, together, across cultures still remains an exception. You just don’t see it.

There are a few exceptions, of course, like the Spazio del Mutuo Soccorso (SMS), which is a housing squat in which people from very different cultures and origins are wonderfully managing to live together in meaningful ways: they collaborate not only to their own benefit, but also to provide the entire neighbourhood with a market, an open school, doctors, a fitness center, language courses and even a magazine which they produce collaboratively, in all the languages of the neighbourhood. It is a wonderful experience which goes beyond legality and which provides spaces in which people meet, see each other, eat together, learn from each other, and mutually provide a basic welfare which does not require a residence permit, a passport, a religion or a political party: it’s for everyone, provided by everyone, collaborating together.

Apart from these exceptional experiences, if you walk down this neighbourhood, just like the in other ones, you would see people alone or in small groups from the same culture. You wouldn’t see them mixing, interconnecting, or establishing relations across cultures and origins. You would see people that don’t know about each other, about other people’s cultures, languages, imaginations and views on the world.

In “Death and Life of Great American Cities“, Jane Jacobs points out the extreme importance of sidewalks and streets.

When you imagine a city, when you recall it in your mind’s eye, you mainly envision its sidewalks and streets.

You see the colours, the signs, the faces of the people, and the things they do, whether they are selling things, skateboarding, walking or doing anithing else they do in their daily life in the city. On the street and its sidewalks.

In the chapter about sidewalks and safety she says: “When people say that a city, or part of it, is dangerous of is a jungle what they mean primarily is that they not feel safe on the sidewalks.”

Cities, by definition, are full of strangers. Even residents who live next door from each other are strangers.

How can you feel safe and secure among all of these strangers?

Jacobs continues:

“The first thing to understand is that the public peace – the sidewalk and street peace – of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as police are. It is kept by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.”

This is a very important observation. It is almost obvious. A high presence of police forces does not procure a sense of safety. It suggests a sense of tension, of potential danger, of terror that something may happen. That something is about to happen: that’s what the police is there for.

The sense of safety – and safety itself – can be achieved when people are able to interconnect with each other, so much that they are able to come together in the intricate, conscious/unconscious ways which are typical of cities, and collaboratively and voluntarily negotiate the network of controls and standards according to which they desire to live. If this happens they will defend and protect these standards, together.

How much does a city street offer easy opportunity to crime? Not much, if the people in the street have have a networked, shared pact whose aim is to voluntarily protect the standard of life and well being in the street itself.

A city street of this kind, equipped to handle “strangers” in this inclusive way must have clear, visible and transparent definitions of public and private spaces; there must be eyes on the street, continuously, belonging to people who feel as they own he street together with the rest of the community; it needs to have people constantly on it, in different waves, maybe, but constantly, both to provide a presence – and, thus, to avoid loneliness and to have many more eyes on the street – and to induce people from the windows above the street to watch it, and to operate a networked, inclusive web of “reputation, gossip, approval, disapproval, sanctions, all of which are powerful if people know each other and if word travels.”

In other words: to be safe, a participatory, collaborative performance must take place, even in unconscious ways, in which people are able to observe themselves as a community, as people sharing the same space, and to organize themselves into a network of intentions and meanings with the objective to mutually support themselves into maintaining the well-being of the street. It is an interconnective logic, describing an inclusive, mutualistic neighbourhood in which people are curious about each other, they want to know more and understand, together.

How, then, can you fight terror in cities?

With all probability, not with a strong presence of police or other military or para-military presence.

You can fight terror in neighbourhoods and cities by transforming them into the most inclusive places in the world.

By crating the occasions and tools for residents to know and understand each other. To eat together. To be in the streets, together, across cultures and beliefs. To have fun together. To consider children to be everybody’s children.

You can fight terror by creating occasions and tools for people to see and experience the network of human beings which they constitute, and to transparently and collaboratively define their public spaces and how they represent and express themselves in public space, and to understand that they need each other to preserve and protect their freedoms to do so, beyond differences, and understanding that differences are a value in this process.

Institutions can play a big role in this kind of process, becoming enzymes and enablers for them.

The sad occasions like the one in Paris of these days – to which we give all our solidarity and support – may, paradoxically, constitute an opportunity to reflect and act, to change the ways in which we do things and, most important of all, to envision new possible futures.