Illustrated by Daniel Anderson.

A Stake in the Street

How can the citizen take charge in the modern city?

To live in a modern city is to inhabit a bewildering world in constant flux, careering through cycles of change at a speed beyond our control. Crumble’s home city of Edinburgh is beloved for its richness and depth of history. On my daily commute I tread streets lined with representatives of almost every architectural style and era rubbing shoulders for space on winding narrow medieval streets and open Georgian avenues. Yet even in a city as steeped in history as Edinburgh, the skyline is constantly changing. New developments emerge monthly and familiar places we know well seem to transform behind our backs. In such an environment it can seem like the citizen has lost any agency they may have had in the formation of the city. In a world of such rapid changes, are we now completely passive in the environments we inhabit?

It often seems as though other people build the world around us on our behalf, and that developers, planners, and occasionally even architects hold the power over shaping the city. Most decisions take place behind closed doors and the general public get little say over new development. Many new major projects seem to be driven exclusively by the all-reaching allure of commercial growth, with the consideration of residents thrown in at the last, and affordable residential properties are increasingly at a premium in most major UK cities and many urban centres worldwide.

However, a short walk in Edinburgh reveals another dimension of this story. The Old Town is dotted with statues of formative figures (almost exclusively male) in the history of the city, from Adam Smith to John Knox, their names and deeds etched in brass at their feet. The ancient closes and wynds reveal their past functions and notable residents in black plaques at their entrances.

These signs are the most literal examples of a wider resonance of the city which extends into the landmarks, street networks and individual buildings from which it is formed. Anomalies in the street plan, remnants of converted or demolished buildings, and even the relationship between neighbouring structures along the pavement hint at shadowy, complex past urban worlds, full of people, spaces, sounds and life that are unrecognisable in comparison to today. Every moment we spend in the city adds to these jumbled, blurred tales and starts to rewrite them for the future. This is the soul of the city, which takes the architecture as a vessel and fills it with value and quality that cannot be specified or measured.

So, does the soul of the city, created by each resident and visitor and through which the architecture derives purpose, hold the key to taking pride and control over its future? These notions of a city brimming over with stories which whisper down the generations through the buildings that surround us seem to crumble in the face of bland, corporate, 21st century development. Looking at some modern apartment blocks, it can sometimes seem that there is no potential for these to become vessels filled with stories of the future. All along, the pace of development pushes on and together the facelessness and speed becomes overwhelming.

But perhaps the speed of modern development is pivotal in the stories, the soul and the people reestablishing themselves in the city. Urban development is so fast because modern technology makes it affordable and efficient, and so we can change the world as quickly as it seems to change around us. This change does not mean reshaping the urban fabric; the building does not make the story, and we can commandeer and adapt that which exists to make it a place in which the people play a role. The recent success of the ‘Save Leith Walk’ campaign in Edinburgh demonstrates one approach to this; whether you agree with the cause or not, it is difficult to argue against the larger effect, a reignition of sense of civic pride amongst residents and a desire to take ownership of the development of their city.

Agency in the city is not anti-development; progress and change offers the best opportunity to stake a claim to our own environment. The speed at which the modern city changes, even in as protected and conservative an environment as central Edinburgh, is thrilling and empowering, providing that the residents do not feel left out.

So how can we take a role? It all comes back to the commonly referenced concept of walking in the city, treading the streets, examining places and buildings, and learning the history. Through physically being out in the urban fabric we establish a place in the present, encountering other members of this city-walking community and strengthening this dense network in the urban world. Once we have learned the past of the city and built a base in the present, we can turn our gaze to the future. In this environment the soul shines through and continues to define the city, to the benefit of all who spend time within it.

So grab your coat, hit the street and take your place in the city!