By Adam Vanzella-Yang, MSc Candidate at the London School of Economics.
The link between international insecurity, the shape of cities, and the way we relate to one another in our daily urban lives often goes unnoticed. Yet, it is a crucial one. In the context of a joint effort from the US and allies against ISIS jihadists, this is a key moment to reflect on the subtle manner in which international conflict influences how we shape our cities, and how cities in turn shape the human relationships within them. Thus, the goal of this article is to highlight how the international climate of apprehension, through its effects on the urban form, can have consequences that trickle down to the day-to-day relations between individuals in large cities of the West.
There is ample literature in urban studies emphasizing the idea that “first we shape our cities, then they shape us”. This simply means that people are the ones responsible for creating their built environments, which subsequently influence how people behave within them. Since the dawn of the neoliberal era, we have been building city spaces that are privatized, excluding, inward-looking, and closely surveilled. In parallel, public and truly democratic spaces have been ever harder to find, both in the developed and the developing world. The widespread rise of gated communities, which are not necessarily safer environments, and our common acceptance of them as ideal living spaces are strong evidence of this problematic trend.
International insecurity acts as a catalyst to the tendency of withdrawal from public life, and further promotes a culture of fear that is already deeply entrenched in global megacities due to many other reasons. This observation is especially pertinent to large urban areas living in constant threat (perceived or actual) of terrorist attacks. Environments that favor the installation of surveillance equipment are inevitably closed off, and streets become residual spaces where the sense of danger and vulnerability is seemingly greater. The obsession with security is forcing urban areas everywhere to succumb to architectures of fear, creating “fortress cities” with dead public spaces.
In Toronto, as in other North American cities, it is common to see signs at the entrance of apartment buildings kindly asking: “Although it may seem impolite, please do not hold doors for strangers. Your safety is a priority”. Canadians are often considered as one of the world’s friendliest people, and visitors to this country are often awestruck by the overwhelming politeness of Canadians in simple gestures, such as holding a door and waiting for strangers that are nowhere near it. These simple acts of civility take centuries to successfully become the norm of a society, but the way we are shaping our cities and living our lives in them is jeopardizing these small but meaningful social successes. The stranger is now no longer a potential recipient of an act of kindness, but most likely a threat.
The idea of a more genuine form of security, wherein people’s “eyes on the streets” ensure local safety and serendipitous social encounters in public spaces, seems increasingly improbable for the future of megacities throughout the world – particularly the ones that are in continuous risk of acts of terrorism. Though it is not common for Canada to be a considered potential target by extremist groups, a more aggressive stance abroad could further foster defensive forms of urban development, which are already widespread in North American cities, including our own.
While the war on terrorism might arguably be necessary, the merits and problems of a clash against Islamist insurgents is a topic beyond the reach of this short article. However, what it calls for is an increased awareness of how tension abroad can potentially deteriorate relationships at home, as we reshape our cities around fear. Canadians must remember that while protecting our safety and security is paramount, the daily kindnesses and courtesies to which we are accustomed are a small part of what makes Canada a place worth living in and defending.