Monday 17 March 2008

How to make cities work

WITH 60 per cent of the world's population predicted to live in cities by 2030, the OpenCities project aims to encourage cities to be safe, multicultural and well laid out, in the mould of Vancouver, Vienna, Bilbao - and Belfast, writes Angela Long .

Ireland doesn't have good cities. An opinion, perhaps. Cities are the way of the future and must get better. That is a fact. And another fact, demonstrated by history, is that cities which are open to foreign populations thrive, both economically and culturally.

Last month, at an international meeting in Madrid, the OpenCities project was launched with the aim of getting European cities working on making themselves attractive, accessible and successful in the 21st century. Key to this is accepting and integrating newcomers, because diversity works. Dublin and Belfast were both well represented at OpenCities - and their delegations faced the uncomfortable fact that, whenever league tables are compiled and list cities that "succeed" in being good places to live, the Irish capitals are languishing below 40 other names, topped inevitably by Vancouver and Melbourne. These indices take into account accessibility, personal safety, climate, culture, transport and income levels.

"Cities should be learning from each other. Belfast and Dublin are very important [ as models] for cities in central and eastern Europe, who have been losing population in recent years. The Irish cities show that the trend can be reversed, and very positively," said Greg Clark, a consultant and chief adviser to the OpenCities project.

More than half of the world's population live in cities. In 20 years, the figure will be over 60 per cent, according to the United Nations, and some studies estimate it will rapidly increase, up to three-quarters of the global population. And after that? A city is defined as an urban settlement with more than 250,000 people. Cities are the only show in town, so to speak. And the best will do well, economically and culturally, while the others turn into agglomerations of shanty towns and a gated, privileged community living a fearful separate life.

"This issue is in the vanguard, from sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America to Europe," says Mark Kleinman, a professor in the London School of Economics (LSE) and the UK's chief social researcher for communities and local government. "The language of immigration is not enough to help us manage a complex situation." The future of cities, and the need to integrate, or whatever label is put on a harmonious combination of nationalities, has to be "taken out of politics", he says.

OpenCities was launched officially in the booming Spanish capital with a gathering of sociologists, town planners, local government officers, non-governmental organisation representatives and politicians. Peter Hall, long-time professor of planning at the LSE, and Prof Saskia Sassen, author, sociologist and member of the Columbia University Committee on Global Thought, and the person who coined the word "global city", were among an exhilarating array of keynote speakers. From each of them, the message was the same: a multi-cultured city is, with proper handling, a recipe for success.

PETER FINNEGAN, of Dublin City Council's new international outreach unit, made much of the buzz of his city and the great attraction of its people. He did also acknowledge, at questions, that transport remained an area which needed work, and that infrastructural development had lagged behind the Celtic Tiger growth - old news to us, but instructive to the representatives of the other Open Cities, Bilbao, Dusseldorf, Gdansk, Sofia and Vienna, Belfast and Madrid.

Dublin faces a list of challenges, including the thorny one of urban transport, and how to combine the essential new inhabitants in a harmonious and productive whole.

Belfast has similar concerns. But with its tortured recent history, there is an also a determination to use that pain to a positive end, and avoid mistakes that other cities have made in becoming multicultural.

The OpenCities project is the brainchild of the British Council, Britain's cultural organisation, with EU support. It is partly Britain's response to data showing that "Old Europe" is losing to the US in the race for the future. Another plank of the British Council's strategy, a Transatlantic Network of young leaders, will be launched later this year.

"OpenCities represents a new way of working for the British Council in Ireland and in Europe more generally," says Tony Reilly, the council's representative in Dublin. "It is bringing Belfast and Dublin city councils together to look at how cities respond to both the opportunities and challenges of more diverse communities." Intercultural dialogue is "where it's at", he says, and this is at the heart of a new mission for the British Council. "We have moved away from a more traditional cultural institute approach to our work."

The Spanish are also very interested. "We want Madrid to be, undisputed, the third city of Europe, after London and Paris," says Ignacio Nino, chief executive of Madrid's Bureau of International Strategy and Action. The Spanish capital has seen phenomenal growth through migration in the past decade. In 1996, the population featured 58,000 migrants. Today, that figure has swelled to 548,000 - around 17 per cent of the total population of 3.2 million in the city proper, and getting close to one in five Madrilenos. Many of the new arrivals are from South American countries, such as Mexico and Cuba. The common language is an asset, but as Gabriel Castrillo, a scientific researcher, told the launch conference, that does not mean moving to Madrid is easy. Validation of professional and academic qualifications from other jurisdictions is one oft-mentioned hurdle. Castrillo said it took two years for his Cuban degrees to make their way through the densely bureaucratic Spanish verification system.

Yet the official line is that the Spanish integration, labelled "cohabitation", has been a great success. "We have no problems, no tensions," declared Nino and others, somewhat incredibly, given that audience members at open sessions spoke of their dismay on getting on the Metro or a bus and seeing no other Spanish passengers. The official claim is based on the lack of major disturbances or riots. But, especially after the Madrid train bombings of 2004, there has been a level of unease about foreigners, local people said.

NEARLY ALL THE population growth in Europe is now due to immigration, Clark notes. Many cities, and countries, have negative or negligible increases in natural growth, births over deaths. 'The most diverse cities attract the most growth," Clark says. 'In international flows of people that we are now seeing, immigration leads to globalisation which leads to urbanisation. London and New York were the most successful cities of the 20th century," he says. 'What can we learn from them for the 21st?"

The data in his chunky report, published at the conference, is from a number of surveys done by the EU, the OECD, the Economist Intelligence Unit and other solid sources. They build up a picture of what is needed for long-term urban prosperity, in terms of jobs and comfort for the citizens.

The OECD found that three million long-term migrants enter its member countries every year, and the big majority are in 11 of the most industrialised countries. Francesca Froy of that organisation told the Madrid gathering of the "clear mismatch" between many countries' immigration and integration policies.

From a self-interest point of view - and one NGO at the conference wondered if there was not more than a dash of a "massive marketing exercise" - what does this all mean for Dublin? Ireland is now fourth in the table of European countries with large foreign-born populations. (Switzerland is first, with nearly 23 per cent from abroad, and has largely had a positive integration experience due to a strong economy.) Can we meet the challenge of turning our cities into great, busy, happy places where accents mingle, but are understood?

The Irish Times

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