Thursday, November 20, 2008

Imagining Greener Cities

Reading James Joyce's Dubliners at the moment, I am struck by his descriptions of the city. In particular, his anecdotes about the relationship between buildings and green spaces is of interest.

Examples abound. The tall trees that line the mall with the sunlight slanting through them onto the water; crossing the Liffy in a ferryboat; a wide field in Ringsend (all in
An Encounter).

Araby, we are introduced to houses with apples trees in their back gardens, muddy lanes, cottages and stables
"where a coachman smoothed or combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness."
Eveline is set against the backdrop of residential development:
"One time there used to be a field in which they used to play every evening....Then a man from Belfast bought the field and built houses in it."
Dublin at the turn of the twentieth century had missed out on much of the industrial development enjoyed further north in Belfast, and had therefore suffered economically. This was one factor in explaining the unique way that the city's infrastructure developed during the period before the Easter Rising of 1916.

Am reminded while reading of the stories told by an old local resident (in his 90's) who remembers my current neighbourhood in north Bristol when much of it was an English meadow in which he and his friends had riverside picnics. He also recalls that the three mile journey to the city centre was by tram or bicycle, partly through open fields.

On a tangential note, I remember talking with an old Finnish missionary several years ago while visiting Bangkok. Arriving in the city just after the Second World War, he remembers elephants working inside the city limits and only three bridges crossing the Chao Phrya River in a city which he described as essentially a collection of villages linked by boats.

Of course, none of this romanticising of the past means that these cities were necessarily healthier places to live than are cities today. However, in an age "addicted to oil" (to quote President Bush) it is often difficult to imagine cities without vast numbers of cars and building developments that dwarf and sometimes replace residential communities which have evolved over centuries. Drawing on the experiences of older people, and reading stories of urban life in a previous age, can be a means of fuelling the imagination and helping us to think creatively about the way that urbanisation in the C21 could work for us with reduced car use and oil dependency.

At least, that's what
these people think.

Incidentally, in 2003, a BBC poll voted Dublin as the best European capital city to live in.

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