Navigating African cities through our own unique and diverse mental maps

by Andy Kozlov

Edwin Heathcote, the FT’s architecture critic, in Liveable v lovable takes with a healthy dose of  skepticism the likes of Monocle‘s city surveys. Some of them look at nature and beauty, some at the efficacy of public transportation and the pressure of water when it comes out of the shower faucets.

Monocle's Top 25 Most Liveable Cities 2010.

“The ultimate difficulty with these surveys is that tastes are individual. I find London infuriating but –with the possible exception of New York – couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather live. “The city is a unique and private reality,” wrote Jonathan Raban, author of Soft City. He proposed that his London was a “soft city”, a place that everyone remakes in their own manner, in which every place evokes a personal memory or connection and which we navigate through our own unique mental maps. Our cities are our own – we make them inside us. No city means the same to two people so how on earth can we measure them?”

Mr. Heathcote cites a number of other urban connoisseurs: Joel Kotkin, Richard Florida, etc. Interesting as it is, I will leave the debate about cities and what makes them “liveable” to these scholars. What interests me here is to briefly reflect on the following passage, with which the FT architecture critic began his article:

Vancouver is Hollywood’s urban body double. It is famously the stand-in for New York, LA, Seattle and Chicago, employed when those cities just get too tough, too traffic-clogged, too murderous or too bureaucratic to film in. It is almost never filmed as itself. That is because, lovely as it is, it is also, well … a little dull. Who would want to watch a film set in Vancouver? To see its skyscrapers destroyed by aliens or tidal waves, its streets populated by cops and junkies, its public buildings hosting romantic reunions?

Everyday I walk through the relaxed streets of Zimbabwe’s second-largest city Bulawayo. I make my mental map of it. Every weekend I go to the movies at a downtown shopping mall and sketch down in my mind the maps  of NY, LA, etc, which are probably the scenes of Vancouver  – and I ask myself: “What if?” What if somebody made a feature film set a Zimbabwean city and about  it, not about a city in South Africa? And do it in an interesting way. What if a group of second-year students from the Bulawayo Polytechnic, being passionate about video games, programmed an arcade Spiel set in this laid-back southern Zimbabwean city? Would it change the lives of the people I see everyday when I browse through the streets of Bulawayo?

When Raisedon Baya of the Intwasa Arts Festival invited me last week to talk to a group of aspiring Bulawayo photographers, whose work the festival plans to feature in a collective exhibition Bulawayo in 100 pictures, I knew what I would talk about. The need to navigate between perceptions of city and the diversity of meanings in urban space is exactly what I concentrated on during my presentation. African cities need more creative individuals able to go beyond their own mental map of the city. They should make others dream, imagine and encourage innovative solutions for cities here.

With Africans’ mental maps being reiterated and refilled with new emotions, African cities might be able to enter and stay on one of those livability surveys sooner rather than later.

And one of the ways to attract creatives is to make our cities places of multiple amenities. A high-amenity place is one where you can get anything you need instantaneously. If you’re pulling an all-nighter, you can get takeout at 2 a.m. When your dry cleaning piles up, there’s a place down the street that will take care of it. If you need to blow off steam, there’s a rock-climbing wall nearby.

People look for the same things in a city that they look for in a company: energy, amenities, and a sense of fun. They want to see roller bladers and cyclists out on the streets. They want to have a place nearby where they can go rock climbing. As Bill Breen explains in his article “Where Are You on the Talent Map?”, published by Fastcompany.com, when they at Carnegie Mellon ask people if they mountain bike or rock climb, many times the answer is no. But they want those activities to be available, because someday they might want to do them.

You can write to Andy Kozlov on a.kozlov@steppesinsync.com

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