Monday, 28 February 2011

Book Review: Common Ground In A Liquid City, by Matt Hern (2010)

Can the world's most livable city be even better? From the perspective of urban studies expert and Vancouver resident Matt Hern, the answer is a resounding yes.

While Vancouver routinely tops surveys of the most desirable cities on earth, in Common Ground In A Liquid City Hern points out that the unaffordable real estate, high child poverty levels, and escalating homelessness point to unavoidable problems that need to be tackled for the City to truly thrive. And he strongly advocates a move towards a bottom-up, less regulated, and less capital-driven future, in which residents, communities and neighbourhoods wrest control of the City's agenda away from planners, investors, and developers.

The book is a series of essays, written by Hern through the prism of comparing and contrasting Vancouver's character with other cities from around the world, augmented by interviews with many of Vancouver's urban planning leaders. While Hern frequently acknowledges that Vancouver has done a lot that is right, he is quick to express his dismay at the sterile, pre-packaged, over-designed, over-regulated and market-oriented city that has emerged in the past 20 years. In a world economy in which everything is for sale, Hern finds Vancouver selling its soul to attract international investment, in the process bypassing the organic street-level community growth that needs to occur for a City to be genuinely attractive and livable.

Hern is keenly aware that Vancouver is a young city still creating itself, and that it has experienced tremendous growth and an unequalled building boom in the recent past. It will require time for neighbourhoods to develop and communities to evolve and become entrenched in the newly created spaces. But in parallel with a stagnant world economy, climate change impacts, and the era of peak oil, Hern calls for a radical rejection of developer-driven growth agendas in favour of local empowerment. He envisages a society that happily breaks  meaningless petty municipal regulations while embracing community gardening, co-op housing, dramatically reduced car dependency, and the re-thinking of public spaces.

In many ways, Hern's conclusions are surprisingly consistent with the future described in Jeff Rubin's Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller, although the two books arrive at common ground from two diametrically opposite starting points.

Hern's occasional use of foul language is rarely necessary, and his thoughts not infrequently border on outright socialism of the type that failed miserably elsewhere. But Common Ground In A Liquid City is frequently thoughtful and thought-provoking, and a useful counterpoint to the prevailing and rarely questioned trajectory that the City is riding.

Subtitled "Essays In Defense Of An Urban Future".
Published by AK Press.
214 pages, including photos, plus Bios of people interviewed and Notes.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

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