April 10, 2024

Amid a two-party controlled and heavily scripted federal election, I had the pleasure of speaking with the highly respected and independent-minded senator Scott Ludlam (Greens, Western Australia) about his long-standing fascination with urban thought and the city as a test bed for innovative forms of democracy.

In the turbulent past of the democratic process, cities have played an important function as places of public assemblies, a sanctuary for those who are persecuted, sculptors of language in politics, and also places of fascination. Think about how Babylon, Byblos, Athens, and other cities from the past created the idea of self-governing citizens gathered with equal rights in a unified assembly. Please take a moment to think about the towns of medieval as well as early Europe, which were isolated from every direction, squabbled cities that created ideals and principles that are still on our sides: civility, civic societies, citizenship, and the self-government of elected representatives. Press freedom is the result of urban struggle in cities like Bruges, Nuremberg, and Amsterdam. The same was the case with republican resistance to a monarchy that was absolute and a pope-like government. In the last century, cities across the globe explored ‘gas-and-water socialism’ – the construction of public baths, libraries, museums and parks, music halls, and services that were funded by the public, including horses-drawn trams, filtered drinking water, sewerage disposal, and (as Henry George famously summarised the idea of the vision in Progress and the Poverty) lighting roads that were lined with trees of fruit.’

New York City. Anna Skarpelis

Could cities of today function similarly, acting as the drivers for revolutionary new political concepts and methods that are uniquely suited for our 21st-century world? Are cities crucial to the future of our democracy? Scott Ludlum is convinced they are. He’s a definite step above other politicians in Australia. Ludlum lives in the city, and urban thought is ingrained into his political DNA. He’s extremely knowledgeable about the issue. He is politically savvy for his years (he’s aged 43) and is currently running for re-election; he told me at our breakfast last week at the cafe in Sydney the fact that urban areas are turning into an instrument of political research. Much has been written and published about the need for sustainable urban areas in recent years”, he adds. There’s an explosion of innovative theory and practice happening. We’re at the brink of the tipping point of urbanization. The future is here,’ says he, using phrases taken from William Gibson. It’s just not widely available at the moment.’

Scott Ludlum’s not a romantic; He’s more of an imaginative realistic. The senatorial quality of his work is evident throughout the room when we discuss the positives and negatives of modern-day urban living. The first topic is the negative. Cities usually mean empty pockets and constant exhaustion amid (as the case in London) “jungles with surveillance cameras’. Homelessness is a public health issue. Cities should be humane nests, according to Ludlum, and not prisons that relegate people living in Poverty to misery as well as shame or forcible removal. He is against the stereotypes of homeless people as smelly, lazy modern-day scumbags who have only their fault. On any particular night in Australia the night of any given night,’ he says, more than 105,000 people are homeless. That’s one in 200 people. More than a quarter of them are children who are under 18 years old. The majority of them suffer from family violence.’

Cities are being destroyed. The city of Detroit is a stark illustration of what occurs when an industrial town is seized by the rich. The fabric has been ripped. The issue of inequality is gnawing at the heart of it. Desperation, slums, a crumbling public infrastructure, and a soaring concentration of personal wealth is the outcome. Although not afraid of market-based solutions, the corporate-driven privatization of city life certainly irritates Ludlum. Money is a major component of city life, but it shouldn’t rule over the citizens of cities. Like the way that citizens in Istanbul have recently risen against their city’s government and developers to protect Gezi Park, he says that all citizens must stand up against the blind privatization of public spaces.

Tea bre, ad, and jam are on the table, and Ludlum shifts to everyone’s favorite topic: automobiles. I’ve discovered that he’s not one for talking about autogedden (Will self). The car is great for personal travel, that is, a long distance. He admits that among people who are green and Green activists, there’s a lot of support for a massive transition to electric cars. However, the problem with private vehicles is that they have strange spatial effects. They do more than block cities. They create living vacuums, the kind that Ludlum refers to as nowhere places. “Look at what changed following 1945. The cheap transportation system that could go anywhere to any place led to an inexplicably large number of cities that seem like they are in the middle of nowhere, an unfeeling topography of suburban sprawl-mart developments. I ask for the exceptions, but he remains solid. “Across the United States, the broad trend was that trams or bus alternatives that became a thing of the past due to the popularity of advertisements for cars were bought, then closed through oil firms. In Australia, the cause was deliberate neglect everywhere but Melbourne, which is blessed with the biggest tram system around the globe.’

Senator Scott Ludlum, from his Perth office. Felicity Ruby

Scott Ludlum is sure that getting automobiles off the top of the planning ladder would reduce overweight and improve the health of the public since, for the majority of people, public transport journeys begin by cycling or walking. This would aid in the development of urban village archipelagos. Ludlum is thinking of networks of cities that are medium or high densities of human communities that are connected with frequent and rapid public transportation. David Rusk presents the same argument for reintegrating cities into suburbs in his book Cities Without Suburbs. However, don’t vested interests and bureaucracies that are dependent on the path go against this vision? “But that doesn’t mean that they’re correct’, the man says. “The alternative is a type of auto-mobility that expands cities into non-sustainable forms. Automobiles are pseudo-cities. Perth is a good instance, he claims. It’s among the biggest cities in the world based on the size of its land. It’s the most rapidly growing city in Australia, and according to projected projections, it’ll become a coastal city of more than 200 km long. With no alternatives, Ludlum believes it could be what geographers (Edward Soja is perhaps the most well-known) refer to as an “exopolis,” which is a city with no centers and a geometrically fractured continuous, car-dependent simulacrum of urban life.

Privatization, sprawl in the form of soulless, nowhere areas, homelessness, empty pockets These dark aspects of the city moon are portrayed in the widely-discussed book written by Leo Hollis, Cities are Healthy for you. However, the Senator generally agrees with the book’s bold attempt to free our city’s pristine environment from the wrath and groans of skeptics, doomsday sellers, and naysayers. Ludlum is a man of good judgment. He’s an intelligent and lucid urbanist who has a keen sense of how city life can be inspiring. Things that are done close to home can be greater in significance, he informs me. Cities such as Sydney or New York are vital crucibles of pluralism, fostering people’s tolerance of differences as well as their shared belief in being alongside others and their need to be civilized and give-and-take. When they’re operating effectively, they’re ‘diverse organic, and solutions-oriented’ (he uses his favorite words from Jane Jacobs). Attracted by the Southern Spanish cities of Seville (‘a well-groomed walking, a solar-powered city that is pedestrian-friendly), he’s particularly fascinated by Tokyo. This is the central theme of the new short film which he wrote and directed. “Tokyo” is fun and full of enthusiasm that is a result of deliberate compaction. Its public transportation system is similar to ballet, and is the best I’ve experienced. The city has many places of deep memories and some are living memories of the triumph of humanity over nuclear weapons, firebombing and nuclear meltdowns.’

The feeling of people touching shoulders with people in urban areas is crucial due to another reason. The professor cites Hannah Arendt on the vital significance of public space for citizens’ lives. He doesn’t flinch. “The experience of public face-to-face interactions and interaction between people brings them back to their diversity and commonality as equals. Sharing public spaces is a good thing, but it also requires people to keep their sense of history alive. Urban dwellers must feel secure, with their feet firmly planted in the earth. Heritage is important. Cities should be the guardians of the collective memories. Given my particular heritage, London does that for me as a city,’ I hear him tell me. “I haven’t found a place where I can truly experience and appreciate the numerous levels of the past.’


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