Or why quickest way to go anywhere is probably the slower one
7 min read
This post, and indeed the title to this website, is a tribute to late Leonard Cohen, who was a craftsman at combining poetry, simple melody, (be)longing, social critique and unconventional spirituality. He was one of many outstanding bards in history who weaved personal drama and intimacy with wider social and historic dimensions. It also reminds us of how precious life is, and begs the perennial question of what we really want to do with it, both individually and as communities. The touching tune ‘Slow’ stands among the last of Leonard Cohen’s long songster career. His songs expressed a deep longing for a meaningful life caught somewhere between a bountiful Heaven and the deep blue sea.
As our broken world is treading doggedly along, we are also faced with a similar identity crisis. The slower, more essential path seems so much more intuitive, it is almost a no-brainer. And we need that slow, winding path both in our brain synapses and in our physical world for us to tread on it as quick as we can. As the lead up to COP26 reminds us, the race to net zero is on. But as serious as the journey is, we also need art, music, humour as well as serious commitment and perseverance to nurture inclusive, healthy and resilience places.
‘Slow’ is really the new ‘fast’ (all puns intended). Because everything is moving so fast, we need to be content with less, or to ‘curb our enthusiasm’ as Larry David’s show gratuitously encourages us to do (albeit for different purposes). ‘Slow’ may be the quickest route to sustainable cities. If we want to make it as a human race and truly act as stewards of this blue, lonely planet, we have to slow down. Fast. Lest we should choose to drive down the ‘highway to hell’, figuratively speaking, when we look at all those catastrophic forest fires across the globe over the past few years, not least in Australia.
Fortunately, we are blessed with ‘slow’ movements as innovative precursors: slow food, slow travel, slow college, slow/active mobility (i.e. cycling and walking). Even slow academia has been making a breakthrough, which might sound amusing to people who don’t really know how the academic world operates. Minimalism and slow growth are also becoming a big fad. A minimalist lifestyle is often imbued with great personal commitment, a practice of inner joy and contentment, and an improved capacity to focus on the activities and possessions that really matters. Decluttering our minds and our possessions can be mutually supportive. Adopters include millennials and the Generation Z, many of whom will be materially poorer than their parents and grandparents. Some youtubers go as far as celebrating the good old ‘boring’ life, except in a rather new way, often with well-chosen high tech at its core.
Being content with less, and the capacity to achieve meaningful experiences through deceivingly ‘simple’ means, can go back a long way. In my own blogging for the AESOP Young Academics network (Association of European Schools of Planning), I show that ancient values and engineering can help restore a healthier and more balanced approach to life, productivity, urban management. They can even help design genuinely ‘smarter’ cities. Have you ever read the iconic fable by Ancient Greek poet Aesop, the ‘Hare and tortoise’, later popularised by French storyteller Jean de la Fontaine? Spoiler: the hare loses the race against a tortoise out of sheer pride, contempt and laziness.
A dystopian version of our shoddy modern happiness project is the 4-minute animation film by Steve Cutts – a vivid and gripping rat race with no less than 27 million views on Youtube. With rising sea levels, we may instead have to ‘run to the hills’, to paraphrase a famous British band originally formed in Leyton in East London. How many Londoners would fit on Hampstead Heath, or could relocate to the Cotswolds? Also, is the possibility of ecological collapse a measure of how smart and civilised we are? The Blade Runner films, (particularly the second instalment) point to the contrary.
Storytelling is at the heart of town planning. So much so that AESOP, a leading international academic network has borrowed its name from one of the most famous storytellers of Ancient Greece. Urban visioning and planning scenarios have arguably been part and parcel of planning projects since times without memory. Fairly recent historical examples include early modern cities (e.g. see Paris, Capital of modernity by David Harvey), garden cities, modernism, brutalism, third world development, the participatory turn in planning, New Urbanism, the ‘smart’ city, placemaking, tactical urbanism, and so on… Such spatially- and architecturally-grounded type of storytelling is also at the core of the planning for more resilient cities – for example see this engaging post about the social resilience urban open space in Greek cities with refugee populations.
Which narrative do we want to write today for generations to come? Is it one of modest adaptation, simplicity and inner wealth (e.g. slow growth, de-growth, mindful living etc), or one of ecological collapse borrowed from the Bladerunner films?
In 2020, we had already consumed our full one planet’s worth of resources by 22 August, coined ‘Earth Overshoot Day’. How many planets do we need? How utterly insane are we that we should even come to ask that question, given that we only have one beautiful, blue, lonely planet to contend with? Fast-moving cities are literally consuming the planet. We need to move (forward, not back) to a more balanced relationship between cities and their hinterlands, which architect Carolyn Steel coins Sitopia. Local is the new global interconnection – committed to living sustainably, we can start looking not much further than where we live, as far as possible of course. Far from backwards, a revamping of ancient values and lifestyles can become increasingly innovative and necessary in today’s devastating Anthropocene. Such may be the good life after all: to re-localise what truly belongs to the local (most of the food we eat, most of the energy we use, etc) and value parsimony and contentment over societal pride and greed. We can slow down the tune. Who ever liked it fast anyway? The Great Resignation, seeing masses of employees reconsider their professional and personal life choices in the aftermaths of covid, has revealed many of the cracks in our hell-bent, collective pace of working and living. At the same time, many capable people die to find stable work and sustenance due to social injustice or environmental change.
We all know how it is to live and work in a fast-paced environment. We can never quite up-to-speed with all the algorithmic powers that be – and why would we even try? Tomorrow’s deliverables are already due the day before yesterday. Coincidentally, our best bets to redeem the planet were also due the day before yesterday. What we need is perhaps to learn from the most sustainable systems available out there – Bhutan is one of those exemplary places on earth. Will COP26 help bring about the change that is overdue? The UN reports that hunger and poverty rose again in 2020. Clearly, the grapes of wrath are still brewing, for we all know we can’t separate people from planet. We can only build forward together to become truly resilient in the face of pending climatic and socio-economic challenges. We are the world after all, as we always have been – and we will always need children to remind us of how interconnected we all are.
Paradoxically, while everything seems to be moving too fast, town planning systems around the world are grappling with the ‘need for speed’ in housing delivery and planning determination, alongside lack of agility, and a great need for a great reform. Things move too fast and too slow. In the US, as well as in other countries, luxury seems conspicuous, at the same time as basic necessities are not always met. Obviously, there is no silver bullet to slowing down, and stopping all the shopping is perhaps only one part of the solution. But strong local placemaking and sharing in cities, underpinned by strong community engagement, participation, capacity-building empowerment, could be an effective first step toward restoring an appreciation of slow places that are age-friendly, ‘all-inclusive’ and provide high quality green space to all. Places, and the sense of belonging to a place, do not come as throw-away consumables or single-use coffee cups. Like mature trees, quality places take time to grow. On a seemingly benign level, we can see the litter everywhere in our cities, as well as the sticky pavements every Sunday morning after the not-so-urbane night revelers have brazenly emptied their bowels however way they could. But maybe the physical mess and litter we encounter again and again is a reflection of something much more damaging and toxic on a planetary scale. Some cities in the world literally have rivers of litter flowing through them – it’s not just fly-tipping! Perhaps it is no wonder that a leading public service design consultancy is called ‘Locality’, that supports the ‘power of community’. Local is beautiful, and beauty is steppingstone for participation. In its own way, the UK National Design Guide also recognises the acute need for beautiful, ‘quality’ places where everyone can feel they belong and can enjoy a good life.
Given the state of the world, one could rightfully ask whether we can stop wasting ourselves – our food, our short human life, the places we live in, the natural environment, and our own grand children? “STOP IT!” is what our momma would say, with a gentle but firm slap on our head. Should that fail, watch this classic comedy act by Bob Newhart about how to stop toxic compulsive behaviour. Behaviour change takes humour, beauty as well as serious commitment. The ‘street art utopia‘ twitter feed, among countless other sources, provides inspiration to stimulate both sides of the brain, and engage us body and soul about the conversations that really matter.
Slowing down is a sure way to become more sustainable. It’s simple, effective… and fast. The slow race is on.