Thursday, 8 March 2007

On Culture

"Culture is who we are, the sum of our beliefs, attitudes and habits. (…) Cultures create artefacts – things people make or have made that have meaning for them. These punctuate the city, typically monuments to past leaders or heroes in the main square or in front of a government building. Religious monuments have pride of place, especially those representing the dominant religion. In most modern cities the artefact might equally be a Henry Moore or Alexander Calder sculpture sited in front of downtown office towers, symbolizing the wealth and power of corporate capital. The meanings of artefacts change over time as new interpretations of history evolve.

Cultures need economic, political, religious and social institutions to provide and enforce regular, predictable patterns of behaviour so that the culture is reinforced and replicated. (…) Cultures pattern how we behave and relate. This becomes the social structure – how we behave in crowds, make eye contact, how much personal space we need or whether we queue for a bus or just go for it.

Our culture shapes how we create and make our places, from the physical level – from the design of street furniture to icon buildings – to how we feel about ourselves and the place. So the scope possibilities, style and tenor of social and economic development in a city is culturally determined. If as a culture we are more closed-minded or strongly hierarchical and focus on traditional values, it can make our culture inflexible and might make adjusting to major transformation more difficult. (…)

By contrast, if our traditions value tolerance and openness, those adjustments to the new world may be easier. Those places that share ideas and have the capacity to absorb bring differences together more effectively. This does not mean their culture is subsumed – identity is still shaped by where you came from. There is, however, sufficient mutual influence and counter-influence, coalescing and mixing over time to create a special fused and dynamic identity, not one hardened into an ossified shell.

These views about how life is managed do not happen by accident – they are a response to history and circumstance. If the culture esteems hard work and the taking of responsibility, the outcome will be different than if it assumes others will take decisions for you. If a culture has an ethos that assumes no one is to be trusted, collaboration and partnership is hard to achieve and bureaucracy likely to be extensive; by contrast, where trust is high, regulation tends to have a lighter touch. (…)

Cities are places where varied publics can come together to co-create a civic realm – a precondition for a confident civic society to uphold rules and justice. This is where citizenship is more important than the ethnic group, clan, tribe, religion, party or cadre allegiance. Cultures and societies that place such an emphasis on citizenship are likely to be more resilient, flexible and ultimately prosperous than those that are divided along lines of ‘blood’ or traditional allegiances.

What we call the culture of a place, whether a village, a city, a region or a country, is the residue of what has stood the test of time. It is what is left and deemed important after the ebb and flow of argument, the fickleness of fashion and negotiation about what is valuable has passed. Culture is the response to circumstance, location, history and landscape. (…) All this leaves people in a specific place with intangible things like views and opinions about their world and the worlds outside; passions about certain things and rituals; the role and importance of higher beings and the spirit; moral codes and ethical positions about what is right and wrong; value judgements about what we think is good, beautiful and desirable or ugly and bad; and attitudes about how we approach problems, conduct our affairs, organize ourselves and manage business.

The values of a culture leave tangible marks: the buildings respond to weather and wealth and the spirit of the times; their quality, design, style or grandeur reflects the values and foibles of the powerful; how good the buildings of the poor depends largely on how well they are empowered; places of power, ritual and worship reflect the role of politics and religion; places for culture like museums, libraries, theatres or galleries from more reverential times demand obedience through their appearance – they seem to say ‘come to our hallowed ground’ – whereas more modern and democratic buildings invite and entice, they are more transparent in style. This is reflected in the materials used, perhaps granite in one and glass in another.

The industrial landscaper too shapes and is shaped by culture. The best factories of the industrial age project the pride of manufacture and production, the worst the exploitation of their workers. Grime and filth live often side by side with the raw beauty of gleaming machinery. Culture spreads its tentacles into every crevice of our lives: how we shop and the look of shops markets and retail; how we spend leisure time and how the parks, boulevards and places of refuge are set out; how we move around and whether we prefer public or private transport; and, most importantly, how and where we give birth to our children and how we bury our dead. (…)

Appreciating culture is even more crucial in periods of dramatic transformation, because it is then that the culture needs to absorb, digest and adjust. Culture, when acknowledged, gives strength in moving forward, even if it’s culture itself that has to change. It then becomes a backbone that can create the resilience that makes change and transformation easier."

Charles Landry, The Art of City-Making p.245-249


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