Manchester’s fourth event in the 4×4 series was held on 22.5.16. The four speakers made presentations that addressed the theme of freedom in relation to cities and the urban. This is my third and final post on the talks (go here and here for the previous posts). I present my take on what took place, with an inevitable slant towards my personal interests (hoping I’m not too far off the presenters’ intentions).
Michael Riebel works for architects and urban designers Hawkins Brown, within their research team ‘&\Also thinktank’ – which dedicates its time to research and innovation. He spoke of freedom from an (art and) design perspective, making challenging suggestions such as, ‘There is no freedom. There are only good rules’. This resonated for me in relation to thinking about how often the most creative, inventive ideas are found when restricted by boundaries or frameworks.
Lucy Montague is senior lecturer in urban design at University of Huddersfield. Her presentation looked internationally at people’s freedoms in urban settings, in particular the use of outdoor public spaces, the regulation of these spaces and the shift from public to private-public spaces. Giving examples of collective public actions such as the large numbers of women in China who dance in public squares, collective prayer during the occupation of Tahrir Square Egypt, the ‘Why Loiter’ campaign in India, where women meet to just ‘be’ in public space. She brought the presentation around to a focus on people’s rights and freedoms to use public space for their daily living, including public speaking and protest – and how vital this is for a healthy society. Noting that these freedoms are being curtailed in the UK and elsewhere, due amongst other reasons, to the privatisation of public space in cities.
David Rudlin manages Urbed, which is one of the partners behind the 4×4 series. His presentation ranged across theories around freedom in relation to cities. How historically people found freedom in leaving rural poverty and moving to the city, where they found ‘stadtluft macht frei’, a German saying meaning ‘city air makes us free’. He juxtaposed this with a recent conference he attended in the USA on the suburban, where a key theme was moving away from cities, and becoming free in the suburbs. He concluded how these contrasts could be understood in terms of two opposing ways of thinking about freedom – with freedom for the individual being found in the suburbs, and freedom for the collective being found in the city.
Graham Marshall is one half of Pro Social Place – a research organisation explicitly linking social science, health and wellbeing issues with urban design and place-making. Graham described urban settings as having the potential to be ‘unhealthy’ for the people living in them. He described how cities are now the main human habitat, and how we need to steward them better. He highlighted how the idea of the ‘commons’ can gave urban inhabitants a place to express their freedoms and to work together towards this husbandry of our cities.